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Stressed for Time?: People with more money have more options, but are left with little time, economist says

Dr. Daniel Hamermesh has a message for Americans who feel there’s not enough time in the day for everything they need to do: Quit complaining.

“If somebody complains, I say, look it’s not a problem—the problem is you have too much money,” said Hamermesh, a professor in the Department of Economics at The University of Texas at Austin.

Daniel Hamermesh
Dr. Daniel Hamermesh

Some may find that opinion a bit harsh, perhaps, but Hamermesh has co-authored a study that backs up his claim. He and graduate assistant Jungmin Lee analyzed survey data from the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and South Korea, and concluded that the more money people have, the more pressed for time they’ll be as they try to find ways to spend it all.

This is because there are really only a couple of hours in the average weekday in which a person has some flexible time. With more money comes more options, which leads to greater stress in trying to get everything done. It’s logic only an economist would use, Hamermesh admitted.

“This just bothered the sociologists like crazy because they all said, ‘Look, if you have more income you can have people do things for you,’” Hamermesh said. “But if you think about most of the things you do, you can’t have people do them for you.”

For instance, Hamermesh noted that you can’t pay a person to sleep for you—or go to plays, read, exercise, eat or any of the countless other things that occupy the day. Those things take time, and time is a scarce commodity.

Stopwatch sitting on piles of money--quarters, dimes and nickels

Conversely, Hamermesh found that people who have less money don’t complain about not having enough time. Not surprisingly, they’re more concerned about their income. This has led Hamermesh to conclude that those concerned about a time crunch are focusing on the wrong issue.

“This notion of time crunch is not one that should occupy public attention,” Hamermesh said. “It’s basically yuppie kvetch—complaining by the well-to-do. Poverty is a problem. Time scarcity is not a problem.”

With a touch of irony, Hamermesh noted that his study was funded in part by foundations interested in finding solutions to time crunch. But the solution that Hamermesh’s study suggests—that time-pressed people give away their excess money—isn’t likely to be a big hit in the affluent suburbs.

“They’re clearly better off with more money and with the stress for time than they would be with less money and less time stress,” Hamermesh said. “They made this choice. Nobody is forcing them to do more.”

Clock with the numbers and hands blurred

Hamermesh admits that both he and his wife feel the effects of time crunch—but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I have lots and lots of money and not much time, so I’m running around like a maniac and feel quite rushed,” he said. “On the other hand, I have the ability to purchase almost anything I want within any kind of reason. I don’t deserve sympathy. Quite the contrary.”

Another finding in Hamermesh’s study is that women—particularly wealthy housewives—complain the most about time stress. Hamermesh speculated that the cause of this is the fact that women tend to be household managers, and hence have more tasks to juggle in a day than men, who are more singularly focused on work. And if you add children into the equation, the potential for time stress is that much greater. In his study, Hamermesh cites his daughter-in-law, who lamented, “With kids and the house, I often feel I have four hours of tasks and only two hours to do them in.”

Although the subject of time crunch has been thoroughly analyzed by social psychologists and sociologists, Hamermesh is the first economist to take a look at the issue. And by using economic theories and models, Hamermesh said he hopes he shed new light on the subject.

Clock on the wall at a terminal

“The beauty of being in this business is that unlike some other disciplines, there’s a specific theory with specific predictions,” Hamermesh said. “And when you test them and they come out correct, you feel just wonderful about the whole thing. That’s why this paper was so gratifying.”

In addition, Hamermesh said he believes his study will open avenues for further research. To that end, he was able to get a question about time stress added to a major U.S. survey last year, so new data on the topic will be available soon.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that somebody will use those data and take off from our paper sometime in the next four or five years,” Hamermesh said. “So in a sense I’ve laid the seed for future work.”

But even if new studies shed further light on the time crunch issue, Hamermesh said we shouldn’t expect Americans to heed his advice and quit complaining. After all, he said, complaining is what makes us special: “The essence of America is complaining. It’s really a unique cultural thing in this country.”

BY Anthony Zurcher

PHOTO of Dr. Hamermesh: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2005 August 7
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