This past week there was international news that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern decided to suddenly resign as leader of the small island nation citing the stress of the job. Locally, our neighboring borough Parkside’s council meetings continue to be frought with the board suddenly reorganizing due to the absence of one council member for mental health reasons. Stress and burnout are everywhere. In this past week’s MLK ceremonies there was a call for more work for others. But it leaves one to wonder how that’s possible, given how shattered everyone I know is.
I dove into some numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics seeking explanations. What is changing that is leading to increased burnout? The BLS has run a longitudinal analysis of Americans Time Use Habits since 2003 (excepting 2020 due to the pandemic).
I was surprised by some of what it showed. We’re sleeping more? On average, over the 18 years of data, American sleep habits were trending in a positive direction, going from 8.57 to 8.95 hours/day between 2003 and 2021. That average could be hiding variations and could be in part due to demographic changes, but its probably not just lack of sleep that’s causing so much burnout. The pandemic didn’t seem to change this trend.
It’s not work either. The amount of hours worked on average has decreased due to the boomers retiring, but the hours worked among those that are currently working has held steady from 7.56 hours/day in 2003 to 7.6 hours in 2019 (the pandemic did cause this to drop in 2021). Long term trends show the average hours worked has declined over the past century.
One area that’s changed is taking care of children. I’ve routinely found our parents and grandparents don’t understand the degree to which child-raising norms have shifted. The chart on this page captures it pretty well with the amount of time spent with children doubling since Gen X was children. In the BLS data, there’s not much shift in the average from 2003 to 2019, but there was a jump in time spent parenting by those with children in the household between 2019 and 2021 from 1.92 hours/day to 2.08 hours/day.
I think two trends in particular mark a source of modern discontentment. The first is time spent watching television, which jumped noticeably in 2007. What happened in 2007? Netflix launched its streaming service. Hours spent watching TV have increased from 2.58 to 2.86 hours/day between 2003 and 2021 (the pandemic did not seem to noticeably shift this). While that’s happened, time spent socializing has declined steadily, dropping from 0.78 hours/day in 2003 to 0.64 hours/day in 2019 before falling more dramatically to 0.57 hours/day in 2021 during the pandemic. That’s over a 25% time drop in the time we spend engaging with humanity. Probably more than anything else, this probably explains a lot of dysfunction in society.
Another noticeable pandemic effect related to the MLK Day calls to service was that volunteerism plummeted during the pandemic. It was mostly steady between 2003 and 2019, hovering around 0.12-0.15 hours/day before falling off to 0.09 hours/day in 2021. This drop is due to a decline in volunteerism among women, who now volunteer at about the same rate as men (before the pandemic they volunteered roughly 50% more). The drop in time spent volunteering among women is mirrored by a drop in the hours worked by men between 2019 and 2021. And that time not spent volunteering or working is about the same as the increase in time spent on household chores. Women are spending more time cooking and cleaning (and slightly more on lawn care) while men are doing a little more of those but also spending about 50% more time caring for pets.
Television and social media are addictive – they rely on the advertising revenue brought in by keeping your attention. But beyond the indirect damage to our health, these are damaging our society in a way that I don’t think we fully understand yet. But the solution seems straightforward. There’s a party I need to RSVP for.