It’s Monday morning and it’s a race against time to get to your seat before your boss gets in. You pass your colleague who’s having a hard time getting the coffee machine to work. Someone tells her “Give it time”. You get to your seat just in time to hear your obnoxious coworker tell the new girl how he had the time of his life on vacation. He has too much time on his hands, you think. Suddenly, your boss walks by and exclaims “Crunch time!” as everyone follows suit, one at a time, for the morning meeting. And you better be on time, because Americans hate to waste time.
Americans are so obsessed with time that The Free Dictionary lists over 300 ‘time’ idioms; many of which are found in the previous paragraph. And in the U.S. business world, it’s essential to be on time. Lateness to work or to meetings is considered rude, disrespectful, and an indication of poor time-management skills. In America, meetings start on time, agendas are strictly followed, deadlines are adhered to, and schedules are important to productivity. Ever since the clock was used to synchronize labor, the idea that time equals money was born.
For Americans, time is a commodity. It can be saved, spent, invested, and wasted. Therefore, wasting time is just as bad as wasting money. This concept is so deeply ingrained in Americans’ minds that it affects our whole lives. We schedule everything from business meetings, play dates, lunches, and even leisure times. Because of this, we hurry everywhere and get inpatient quickly when there is a long line. But how did Americans become so obsessed with time? The answer is found within the nature of our economy.
According to The Economist, until the 1970’s, Americans worked the same number of hours as the average European. But in the 70’s, the labor unions in Europe fought for stable wages, a reduced work week, and more job protections. Governments capped working hours and mandated holidays. Europeans traded money for more time resulting in lower wages and more vacation.
Changes in taxes also played a role into these economic changes. According to Nobel laureate Edward Prescott, between the 1970s and the 1990s, the U.S. marginal tax rate stayed fixed at about 40%, while the French rate rose to 59% and the Italian rate to 64%. Steeper tax hikes are closely related with shorter work weeks and longer vacations.
But in the United States, labor unions were less powerful. The same economic shocks of the 1970’s led to job losses and increased competition. The 1980’s saw taxes and social-welfare programs get cut which increased economic inequality. Rising costs of pensions, health care, and higher education, much of which is funded or subsidized in Europe, made it logical to trade more time for money. In fact, A 2014 study by finance firm Accounting Principals found that 77 percent of Americans would reject a four day work week with subsequent pay cut. Also, 79 percent of Americans preferred a 5 percent salary increase versus an extra week of vacation. Americans valued money more than time off. It subsequently became a a winner-take-all society which created a rat race mentality.
Larger, wealthier cities with their high wages and higher cost of living also raised the value of time even further. When economies grow and costs rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. The more valuable time is, the more limited it becomes. This is why you see more “fast-walkers” in New York City versus people in rural India. Life in rich countries is faster than that of poor countries. Subsequently, rich countries have less leisure time than poorer countries. A 2011 Gallup poll found that the more rich Americans become, the less time they have. And the more educated Americans are, the less leisure time they get. Because when Americans are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours. Working became a more profitable use of time.
Opinions on time vary across the world. Something I will go into further in my next article. For now, it’s understandable that some people choose to work long hours for bigger paychecks, while others choose less income in turn for more time and longer vacations. What is clear is that time is highly valued when it is gone. Few Americans have complained about having too much of it. Instead, most complain about how fast time flies!