Kvetching about time – what it is and why the wealthy are more prone to doing it

An excerpt from Spending Time – The Most Valuable Resource by Daniel Hamermesh. Daniel will be appearing at the UNSW Bookshop at 2pm today.

Kvetch, a Yiddish word now widely used in English, means “to complain or gripe habitually.” And a favorite complaint is that someone is stressed for time. One definition of stress is “as state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” It wouldn’t seem that having only twenty-four hours in a day is an “adverse or very demanding” circumstance: it is a situation that every human being has always faced, just as we have faced the same oxygen content in the air we breathe. We don’t find the air’s oxygen content to be stressful and don’t complain about limited air, unless we are at high altitude, deep-sea diving, or suffering from lung disease. Yet many of us find the limit of twenty-four hours in the day to be stressful. We feel stressed for time, rushed, harried, and hassled by what we perceive as a lack of time. We complain about the limitations on the hours in the day – we kvetch about time. We Americans seem to view kvetching as our national pastime. And complaining about time – feeling that we are “time-poor,” even though we all enjoy the same amount of time – is a manifestation of our national pastime.

The reason for the kvetching about time is that there are things that we would enjoy doing if we had more time but that we can’t currently do. For some of us the additional time might not make much difference – we’re already doing everything we want to do in our limited time and with our limited incomes. For others – probably most of us – if we had more time, we would be able to spend it and our incomes in more satisfactory ways. That is especially likely to be true among people who are doing more different things and often rushing to complete each one. Having more time would relieve them from having to shoehorn their substantial income into the same limited time that is available to others who have less income.

The notion that the limited amount of time might create more pressure on those who have greater incomes gives a hint about whom we can expect to do the most kvetching: it is those people who have the highest incomes. High-paid workers have less time for nonwork activities than lower-paid workers, so they must crowd their higher earnings, which allow them to buy more things, into fewer hours of nonwork time during a week. But even nonworkers – retirees, nonworking partners of workers, nonworking students, and the unemployed – might be expected to kvetch more if their household incomes are higher, because they have more things to spend their money on than lower-income nonworkers but have the same twenty-four hours per day to spend it in. Even children might be stressed for time if their household incomes are higher. A Tom Cheney cartoon illustrated this for two eight-year-old boys, one of whom is kvetching, “So many toys – so little unstructured time.”

The apparent choice in life is to feel time-poor and income-rich, to be pressured for time but not for money, or to feel financial pressure but little time pressure. In the early 2000s, I applied for a grant from a foundation to work on time-stress. The social psychologists who were the foundation’s program officers were terribly concerned about time pressure among well-off families. I thought: Tough; if you want to avoid feeling time pressure, take a job that pays only half your current earnings per hour of work. Or if you don’t work for pay, donate half your unearned income to charity. You’ll feel less time pressure, but you’ll feel burdened by more financial pressure. I would be very happy to wager that most people would choose to feel time-poor rather than income-poor, and that is the choice that we make either explicitly or, more unusually, implicitly and by default.

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