Despite gains in productivity, time and money don't match


"Time is my biggest problem right now. Before I went back to work, money was. So you have have time or money. Those are the two choices in life." Many of us identify with these words of a working mother.

A growing industry of authorities in time and money management sells services to help us cope with hurry and unpaid bills. But these guides miss a deeper problem. Contemporary society fails to balance our needs for money and time.

This wasn't supposed to happen. After all, thinkers have long predicted that mass production would meet all of our needs while freeing us from the unrelenting toil of our ancestors. Even economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1931 that the end of age-old material scarcity was at hand. Soon "man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem -- how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably, and well."

Keynes was wrong.

Our needs expanded at least as fast as our productivity -- stealing our promised free time in the process. Our policy makers and business leaders came to believe that progress meant greater gross domestic product, not more leisure time. Increased free time suggested stagnation rather than social and personal fulfillment.

But what are the practical alternatives to the very real appeals of consumer culture? Spending leisure time in the mall has become a passion for many. And, in fact, few of us have found ways to express our individuality without consumer goods playing the central role. Even those who participate in sports feel it necessary to buy the right shoes, the perfect equipment, the latest skill enhancer.

Thus we are frustrated by the demands of consumption on our time and obliged to work more than we would like to earn the goods we think we need.

The legal standard of a 40-hour work week has not changed since 1938, despite enormous gains in productivity. Since the '60s, Americans have lagged behind Europeans in free time. Yet even if we had more leisure, I doubt we would be content.

Our frustration will continue until we consider seriously our choices: Economists must recognize that free time is a fruit of economic growth as much as are goods. Creative people must offer concrete ideas and activities for using time that go beyond our consumption-driven leisure. Most of all, the rest of us must embrace the challenge of balancing our needs for goods with our needs for life.

Gary Cross is a professor of history at the Pennsylvania State University and author of "Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture." Currently he is working on a history of toys in the American family.


Have you developed a time-saving technique you think could help others? We'd like to hear about it. Next month, we'll begin a series of periodic Time Saver columns that will share reader tips so we can offer some solutions to your professional, home or leisure time-management problems. Please leave your name, city residence and daytime phone number when you call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6220 after you hear the greeting.

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