When people ask what I do for fun, I usually laugh and say, “Well, I enjoy my job as a litigator, and I love spending time with my husband and toddler, I teach group fitness classes in the evenings, and when I have “free” time I like to do something creative – journal, crochet, bead, scrapbook, bake, blog …” I always put the “free” time in quotes because, as everyone knows, there really is no such thing as “free time.” There is an opportunity cost to any choice. If my son is awake, I’d rather be with him than do just about anything else. Once he goes to bed, there is a long list of things I want and need to do. If I choose to journal one evening, I likely won’t bake bread for the next day, or finish this week’s Economist before the next one comes. If we go out with friends, the dishes usually get left in the sink. I often multitask my “free” time activities, like watching “The Bachelorette” while making a birthday card for a friend or updating my son’s baby book. Any of these “free” time pursuits take away from my favorite nighttime activity – sleeping. 🙂
I like to believe that as I earn more money and authority, I will have more free time and disposable income for doing things I enjoy. A recent (okay, it was back in April, but blogging was not high on my list of leisure activities for the few months I was spending my workday churning out legal briefs) article in The Economist made me question that assumption, citing new studies showing free time tends to fall with income.
Of course, for most of history, the reverse was true, with the wealthy basking in leisure activities while the poor (the “working class”) toiled long hours (an average 64 hours a week for an Englishman in 1800). Since then, working hours have fallen across the industrialized world, but they have started rising again among the wealthy and well-educated. “Work smarter not harder” sounds good in theory, but in fact, Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree work an average of two hours more per day than those without a high school diploma. During the wealth accumulation phase, working harder these days pays off – in the early 1980s, working 15 hours more than the regular 40-hour workweek resulted in 11% higher earnings, but by 2000, such “workaholics” were making 25% more than their 9-to-5 counterparts. This means that the opportunity cost of leisure is much higher; ironically, the well-paid cannot afford to take much time off.
More surprisingly, once workers have sufficient money to live comfortably, or even extravagantly, they continue to put in long hours. Not long ago, successful entrepreneurs would sell out and go enjoy their yachts and private islands. Now, many of the wealthy just take on new ventures. This is in part due to a growing social stigma against leisure (lavish vacations are one thing, sitting home watching TV is another), as well as more interesting and rewarding kinds of work. It may also be related to the fact that we are living longer, so want to stay physically, mentally, and professionally active as long as possible.
In any case, the Economist article helped me appreciate where I am in my life right now. I work less than 40 hours a week, take lots of vacations, and “lose” almost no time to commuting, housework, or illness. This may be the most “free” time I ever have for the next fifty years; I intend to enjoy it!