Opinion

America's declining supply of leisure time | Chris Carrel

You may have noticed that Thinking Locally has been missing from The Mirror for several weeks. Unfortunately, the simple explanation isn’t pretty.

You may remember the 1999 film "Fight Club," in which a mild-mannered office drone is drawn into the underground world of bare-knuckled fighting. For several years now, Mirror editor Andy Hobbs has been aping the film’s Brad Pitt character, competing in a similar underground movement that focuses on the burly sport of competitive beard-growing. That’s right, "Hair Club." Hobbs had grown quite proud of his championship whiskers. He challenged me to join the club, which I did, rapidly growing a beard of such magnificence that Andy’s own face fur was dethroned, reduced to nothing more than mere face fungus. While Hobbs became consumed with rage and envy, he couldn’t settle it like a man and instead banned me from the paper until I shaved.

Nice story, huh? Of course, it’s not quite true (though my beard totally outclassed Andy’s mug-bumper). The truth has something to do with today’s topic: Time. I was just too busy. Writing a column in one’s spare time is a challenge, even for those people who actually have spare time.

In some ways, time may be the most pressing natural resource scarcity we face. Sure, it’s renewable — you get another 24 hours every day — but still, there isn’t enough of it. I’m not alone in feeling the time squeeze. I have yet to find anyone who is having trouble filling the hours of a day. Even retired friends complain that they are too busy.

According to a Harris Poll, Americans’ leisure time has been steadily decreasing since the poll began in 1973. Twenty-six hours of sweet 1970s leisure time has downsized to a paltry 16 hours, as work and other activities (like answering polls and reading Facebook posts) has increased.

Interestingly, the poll’s answers on the amount of time Americans work and the amount of leisure time they have indicates that there is a gray area of time that is neither work, nor leisure, that is growing. I think of the time spent driving kids to and from soccer games and practices, and doing business on the cell phone on the sideline of a game.

That’s not work exactly, but it certainly isn’t leisure time. As personal and professional spheres bleed into each other, the time squeeze worsens.

Nor does new technology help. Twitter, Facebook and the whole Web 2.0 movement purports to improve our ability to communicate, but all those posted photos and keystrokes add up — at the expense of time that could be spent doing other things.

The ruptures in our economy have only heightened the time squeeze. Is there anyone out there actually doing less work for the same amount of pay than they were a year ago? I doubt it. As downsizing puts more work on fewer shoulders, the bounds of sanity are being stretched. Recently, a friend was presented with a departmental budget that had been cut 30 percent, with the expectation that productivity increased.

When you spread that across an economy, the effects of all those workers being squeezed to do more and more with less, while balancing family and civic lives, has got to have an effect.

My guess is that our ability to be involved in the civic life of our community is taking a backseat to other priorities. Is it no wonder that so few new faces show up in political races? Aside from all the other challenges neophytes face, who has the time to run for local office anymore? Just keeping informed on issues can be a major challenge. We’re a nation of skimmers, not backpage readers. Cable talk shows have become bite-sized ways to gain opinions. What’s lacking is often knowledge.

What does this mean for Federal Way? We are facing one of the most important decisions in the city’s 20-year history with the November election for our first elected mayor. Truly, it's a contest that begs us to read beyond the campaign messaging and hit pieces.

I haven’t a clue how we go about making the time for this. I hardly had time to write this column.

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