If I could earn back time
How are younger generations doing when it comes to free time?

By Ian Klesmer, Gen Squeeze contributor

Ahh, the Canada Day long weekend – so close we can almost taste it! Will you be catching up with friends and family? Lounging in the sun? Tackling unfinished chores? Whatever your plans, if you’re anything like me you’re pining for that extra day off with every bone in your body 

Which has got me thinking: what if every weekend were a long weekend?

Okay, that might be a bit ambitious. But GenSqueeze is all about speaking up for a generation that’s squeezed for both money and time. And leisure time tends not to get the same air time as other pressing issues we face like student debt and exorbitant child care costs.

Simply put, free time makes life worthwhile. We might spend it in any number of ways: catching up with friends, volunteering, learning a new language, or looking after our kids or an aging parent. Or we might just use it to veg out, recovering from the last work week and recharging for the next one.

However we choose to use it, free time opens us up to create, to learn, and to enhance our own well-being and that of our community. One of the most common regrets people express on their deathbed is having worked so hard. I’ve never heard of any end-of-life complaints about having had too much leisure time.

So let’s take a closer look at the time side of our money-time squeeze. How are younger generations doing when it comes to free time?

The answer’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some studies suggest that we have less leisure time than we did a few decades ago. Other studies show that we actually have more leisure time. Counter-intuitively, the only people who consistently have less free time are those with higher incomes and more years of formal education (whose complaints about being overworked have been met with accusations of “yuppie kvetching”).

Yet anecdotally, everyone I know seems harried and stressed beyond belief. How can this be if we’re not working more than past generations?

One common theory is that being wired has made our work hours a lot more fluid. While our smart phones and laptops have opened up a whole world of flexibility, the flip side of this convenience coin is that work is now seeping into our lunch breaks, our evenings and even our coveted weekends and holidays.

Research by Gen Squeeze points to economic factors. Over the past few decades, hourly wages have declined while housing costs have soared, making it harder for the typical younger Canadian to make ends meet. Work has become increasingly precarious for many. Our job-related anxieties could be bleeding into our sacred leisure time.

As the line between the professional and the personal blurs, the quality of our leisure time is fundamentally altered.  Nowadays, 9-to-5 is no longer the status quo; whatever our official working hours, work tugs at our consciousness 24-7.

Our lack of work/life balance is taking its toll. Tina Fey has even created a new word to capture the all-too-common feeling of being overwhelmed by stress: feeling “blorft.”

In addition to the typical signs of stress like headaches and sleeplessness, our state of perpetual “blorftness” is having more profound impacts on our life trajectory. Many of us just can’t see how to balance a successful family life and with a successful work life. And so we’re simply opting out of having kids.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. As western countries industrialized and started generating unprecedented levels of economic productivity, new visions emerged of a society flush with leisure time. As far back as the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes was writing about the possibility of a 15-hour work week and Bertrand Russell was musing that a four-hour work day was already enough to secure “the necessities and elementary comforts of life.”

Both visions were based on the premise that, at some point, we’d realize we were better off with more leisure time than with more stuff. But that realization has not come to pass. Instead, we’re still discovering more things that we “need” - a bigger TV, an updated wardrobe, and a bigger living space to hold it all. And we’ve collectively decided, at least implicitly, that we’re willing to give up our time to make enough money to keep buying these things.

There are alternatives to this model. A few decades ago, European countries like France and Germany started swapping income for increased leisure time. Now they work way less than we do in North America - while boasting a higher labour productivity. Europeans work to live rather than the other way around, taking five, six, even seven weeks off per year.

And it makes a difference. While living in the UK, I worked at a job that started with six weeks of holiday. My North American friends and I relished our extra time off. We took multiple extended holidays per year, not to mention the odd day off just because we could. Having more leisure time dramatically improved our quality of life - so much so that we were happy to trade a little bit of extra income for it.

Would this fly in Canada? I don’t know, but it’s definitely worth talking about. Achieving a better work/leisure balance would help us all lead happier, healthier, more meaningful lives. As an added bonus, it could also free up working time and give new opportunities to the thousands of unemployed millennials out there.

Would you be willing to make that trade-off? Over the Canada Day long-weekend, turn to Cher for some inspiration and belt it out with her: If I could earn back time!

Ian Klesmer is a lifelong leisure lover from Toronto.

Ryan Vandecasteyen
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