What does time mean to you?

Published 10:13 am Friday, May 15, 2015

In due time
We’ll finally see
There’s barely time
For us to breathe
— The Postal Service 

It’s 6 a.m. and the iPhone starts buzzing the tune “Time Passing” to wake me. Before hitting snooze, I check my work email and calendar to make sure there’s nothing urgent. I sigh when I realize I didn’t have time to update my calendar before leaving work, but then I remember that I didn’t finish this or that necessary project before I called it a day.

So up I rise, and I arrive at The Tidewater News office before 7 a.m., and I probably won’t call it a day until after 8 p.m.

Time has been something that has been on my mind more heavily since attending the F.U.E.L. workshop on time management this past week.

Especially considering some of my recent emails to people, apologizing for not being able to get to something because I’m operating about two weeks behind. If you want to know the truth, claiming to only be two weeks behind is being pretty generous.

Most of the time when I get behind, it comes on the heels of having achieved a victory of getting ahead, or at least something resembling caught up. When it seems like I’m breathing easy, it’s like the universe looks down upon me and laughs out, “It looks like you could use more work.”

“No,” I say, “I’m actually able to see the forest for the trees right now and do this thing called planning!”

“Silly human,” it retorts.

It wasn’t really improving my workflow that has been on my mind, but rather having more time for my personal life. It seems like there’s barely time to breathe. Between work, laundry, household chores, grocery shopping, cleaning and 5,270,388 other activities to do each week, including checking that pesky phone to see if the latest email is going to drag me away from the couch, where’s the time for sleep, much less fun?

Most American workers suffer from a very similar problem. The 40-hour work week created to restore what the Industrial Age and capitalists with big black top hats had taken away is a thing of the past in this new period of technological revolution, particularly for those of us who received a college education.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Economist John Maynard Keynes said in 1930 that in 100 years, American workers would maybe toil for three hours a day — if they felt like it. The economy and distribution of wealth would be so great that leisure time would actually define our lives.

Data backs up that Keynes’ argument should be right, as according to Bureau of Labor statistics, the average productivity of Americans has increased 400 percent since 1950. If that was true, it would require just 11 hours per week to earn the same standard of living as our parents and grand parents. Or, our standard of living should be four times as much. Yet, many in the U.S. actually work more for less than a person in 1950.

In Western Europe, including Great Britain, Germany and France, that dream of leisure time to pursue spiritual and intellectual goals is starting to develop. Workers toil for fewer hours, get more vacation time and parents actually get an average of 20 weeks of paid leave for childbirth. The only other countries that don’t provide paid leave for parents are Papua New Guinea, Suriname and Liberia.

Further, in the U.S., 86 percent of males and 67 percent of females work more than 40 hours a week. A Harvard Business School survey found that 94 percent of college-educated professionals work at least 50 hours a week, and almost half clock in at 65 or more.

Eventually, the sun is going to burn out. If we’re not able to move the planet farther away from our star by then, the Earth will long be cosmic dust. If that occurs, that dust will hopefully fuel another planet, but nothing we built here as a people will live on.

Until then we get about 100 years — give or take, but mostly take. And we’ll spend most of our waking hours working or thinking about work instead of achieving those artistic, intellectual or spiritual pursuits that Thomas Jefferson laid out for us as the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.

We’ll spend our lives working as hard as we can for financial security, which will mostly profit someone else, in hopes for a time to rest in our later years. And maybe, if the stress hasn’t given us mental and physical problems, we’ll have the health to return to the flock that we worship with, pick up the guitar, make up for the time we missed with our family, volunteer to improve our communities and enjoy what we are given on this planet for a few of those years.

An untruth that we are lazy as a nation has been so drilled into our minds that we will put up with it. American companies are so quick to slash jobs and move them to other countries that we will not fight them for fewer hours, better salaries or more help. We will be too distracted with work and the information overload to even give it much thought.

And the gaps for both wealth and free time will continue to get worse. Maybe some of us who are able to combine hard work, talent and passion with a bit of luck will achieve something resembling the American Dream.

The rest of us will die broke and alone in a nursing home abandoned by our children — if we had time to have any — who are working harder than we did in hopes of not coming to that same fate.

As Roman Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

Do we really want to be so busy that we let our whole lives pass us by?

Cain Madden is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187 or cain.madden@tidewaternews.com.