Friday, May 23, 2008

The Haves and the Have-Nots: of Time



Is it just me, or does it seem people with more responsibilities have less and less time, while tens of millions of those with fewer responsibilities have ever more leisure time to spend on entertainment?

Many managerial/entrepreneural types report that they barely have time for a quick lunch, or time to breathe after "regular work" (before their second shift as parent/accountant/manager starts that evening), yet according to the research firm Nielsen, American households are watching 8 hours and 14 minutes of television a day while individual viewers watched TV 4 hours and 35 minutes per day: Nielsen Media Research Reports Television's Popularity Is Still Growing

Does anyone else detect a wee disconnect here? If you're actually busy, who the heck has time to watch television 8 hours a day?

I was worried that 4.5 hours of TV per person wouldn't leave everyone with the hours required for talking and text-messaging on cellphones, the hours needed for videogaming, and the all-important hours spent emailing, websurfing and clicking through YouTube. So imagine my relief to find that all those additional hours of New Media haven't impinged on television's premier status:

"These results demonstrate that television still holds its position as the most popular entertainment platform," noted Patricia McDonough, Senior Vice President of Planning Policy & Analysis at Nielsen Media Research. "At this point, consumption of emerging forms of entertainment, including Internet television and video on personal devices seem not to be making an impact on traditional television viewing. This is especially true among teenage girls, who have shown significant increases in viewing during the past year."

Whew. For a minute there I was afraid teenage girls might be too busy learning math, science, Mandarin, guitar, etc. or playing field hockey or water polo or volleyball or working on their 4-H project or helping Mom and Dad with the family business to get in their 5 hours of TV a day.

Meanwhile, back in the world of responsibility and productive labor, academic departments and corporate offices have been stripped of admininstrative support; professors and senior managers are supposed to process their own paperwork, attend umpteen meetings, answer a couple hundred emails a week--and of course, do their "real" job, too.

And to reach these heights of responsibility and reward, go-getters are getting more extreme, too, as frequent contributor Albert T. notes regarding this BusinessWeek article: Meet Your New Recruits: They Want to Eat Your Lunch:

This is basically a story about how kids are huddled into striving for perfection, ergo conditioned for maximum profit potential with all else falling away. The gist of the story is freshmen in ivy league schools are competing so fiercely for internships, etc., setting up clubs of exclusivity where the reward is working for free in order to boost your resume. Upsetting. Why can't any of these seemingly "excellent" people understand that it is always the outsider whom succeeds? There are a million names out there, Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban, etc. all of them started by doing what they liked.

Excerpt from the article:

"Completing what Stanford students call a rare "triple crown," Yu also gained admission to Stanford Consulting. That group rejects four out of five applicants with a notorious entrance interview. Yu's included a business-school-style question about how a deodorant company ought to reverse its declining market share. "It's so competitive to get into Stanford, and then it's kind of a shock you still have to apply for the student groups," says Yu, clutching her personalized Stanford Consulting tote bag to her chest.

The reward for getting into 20-member Stanford Consulting is the chance to do volunteer work 15 hours a week for a real consumer-products company, which Yu declines to name because she signed a nondisclosure agreement."

So am I wrong in discerning a two-tiered society in which one slice of citizenry carries more and more of the responsibility and workload and pays more and more of the taxes, while the other 80% (assuming the Pareto Principle holds more or less true) are spending increasing amounts of time in idle pursuit of "entertainment"? (a.k.a. killing time).

There's only three possible explanations: either Nielsen managed to select the only 10,000 households watching staggering amounts of TV; all 10,000 selected households fiendishly left their TVs on 8.25 hours a day but went off to play in a band, tend the garden, etc., fooling those poor devils at Nielsen; or millions of Americans are watching stupendous amounts of TV.

So what's the correct answer? Ding! You win! It's number three.

And who's complaining about being too busy? Everyone, it seems; those in the top rank are working longer hours, paying more taxes and receiving less admin assistance every year, while those in the lower ranks are complaining about paltry/non-existent raises, less benefits, more demands at work and increasing insecurity every year.

But if life is so darned busy every day from dawn til dusk, who the heck is watching 8 hours of mind-numbing TV a day? Is anyone cooking a real meal at home, or are they watching TV while they cook? Are they cleaning house, or are they able to watch TV while they scrub the bathroom floor? Are they making jam for the church fundraiser while they watch TV? Are they practicing martial arts or riding a bicycle to the farmer's market, or can they do that while watching TV, too? Or are they foregoing sleep, and then relying on powerful, crazy-making drugs to finally pass out after 8 hours of electronic distraction?

Can we be frank and suggest that if someone is watching 4.5 hours of TV a day plus another 4.5 hours spent fooling around with other media and devices, either they're unemployed and not in school, or they're spending every waking minute not spent at work or school being "entertained" by the mass media? And if that's the case, then how can they possibly have time to exercise, cook, clean, read a book, walk the dog, learn something useful, go to night school, sew a new outfit, volunteer at the church, mentor a kid, coach Little League, i.e. live a full active life engaged with family, friends and community, while having some time for their own hobbies/interests?

Can we assume the people working in demanding roles or striving to get a top-notch education simply don't have enough time to kill on 8+ hours of "entertainment" every day?

And can we further assume that the people who are spending half of their waking life seeking distraction/entertainment could be doing a wee bit more on their own behalf if they cut back on passively watching TV or playing some moronic videogame? You like football? Then rip that stupid little controller out of the box and go outside and toss a real football around. Maybe even fall down and scratch a knee as you dive for the "long bomb" catch of a lifetime. Exactly what adventure is there in canned "entertainment"?

Of course nobody with a college degree ever watches TV--or at least, not much. It's a guilty pleasure for those who "know better," while those who don't feel a shred of guilt leave the TV on all day, as if life isn't real unless the TV is droning somewhere in the background.

Memo to America: life isn't real when the TV is on. Maybe we should be demanding a bit more of ourselves instead of whining about how "busy" we are or what a rotten deal we got. Because you can't have it both ways; if you're truly busy, you're lucky to find the time and energy to watch 4.5 hours of TV a week, not a day. Ditto for YouTube, Grand Theft Auto, etc. If you're truly busy, you're busy with active pursuits like playing an instrument or getting into shape or tinkering with an old pickup truck or repainting a set of chairs or, well, anything active which actually engages real people and real goals and real interests. Your interest in TV is nil because you don't have time for all that you want to do.

Yes, I know how it is to be shattered, and too tired to play an instrument or do anything remotely useful; you just want to watch something unchallenging. OK, fine, we all know the feeling. I too watch TV or a movie occasionally. That's why I keep a list of worthy films on the site; a movie is entertainment, to be sure, but it can also be much more than a TV show; it can be a window on another culture, for instance. In any event, let's say you watch a few movies a week or the Food Channel, etc. for relaxation; wouldn't that total 6-8 hours a week, not 32 hours?

And if we're not busy, then what do we expect? Lifelong security, better pay, a trim physique, glowing health and a life of meaning? From what inputs/effort? Yes, ambition can be misdirected, as Albert T. pointed out; but Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, et al. did not storm the gates of the Establishment by sitting around playing videogames and watching TV.

Frequent contributor Harun I. sent in this quote which seems highly relevant to the revelation that the average U.S. household passively watches 60 hours of TV a week, and many more on the spirit-crushing distractions of one "entertainment platform" or another:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable. Helen Keller

I know many of you agree because you're written me that your household doesn't have a TV or video game console. To you I say: Bravo. It's amazing what people can find to do when there's no TV or console or device to snap on and zone out.

Thank you, Joseph B. ($25), for your very generous contribution to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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