Is Time Really On Your Side? : Planet Money Economics is all about scarcity — and time is a scarce resource. We talk to economist Daniel Hamermesh, whose new book Spending Time examines time's complicated relationship to money, stress, and gender.
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Is Time Really On Your Side?

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Is Time Really On Your Side?

Is Time Really On Your Side?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The concept of time has been famously puzzled over by philosophers and physicists and writers and, in modern times, singers, singers like Cyndi Lauper, whose "Time After Time" is Stacey's very favorite song (laughter).


It's not my very favorite song. It's...

GARCIA: I heard it was your favorite song.

VANEK SMITH: Who told you that?

GARCIA: There was a rumor going around.

VANEK SMITH: There's not rumors about my favorite song going around (laughter).


CYNDI LAUPER AND ROB HYMAN: (Singing) Time after time. If you fall, I will catch you. I'll be waiting.

VANEK SMITH: But I love that song. I love Cyndi Lauper. But, you know, Cyndi Lauper aside - although, you know, she's never really aside - the way that we all spend our time is this great topic for economists because economics is really about how people use scarce resources to try to improve their lives. And time is a scarce resource. There are only 24 hours in a day and - not to get too maudlin here on you, Cardiff - but, you know, only so many days that we have on Earth.

GARCIA: And one economist who has devoted himself to the study of time is Daniel Hamermesh. He has analyzed the data on how people spend their time in the U.S. and in other countries for a book he just finished called "Spending Time." And in that book, Daniel argues that compared to how much money we make, time is actually becoming even more scarce. And pop songs aside, we actually don't think about time enough.

DANIEL HAMERMESH: Our incomes, compared to our grandparents', are probably tripled. Our amount of time we have in our life is maybe up 15%. So in terms of its relative scarcity, time is more important than it ever was.

VANEK SMITH: And in his book, Daniel writes that time has kind of a complicated relationship with the amount of money we make. And he explains his theory right after the break.


LAUPER AND HYMAN: (Singing) If you're lost, you can look, and you will find me time after time.

GARCIA: There's a theory in your book that as people make more money, they actually start to become more stressed about time, the thinking being that if we have more money, we can afford to do more things. But the one thing that money can't buy is more free time in which to actually participate in those activities. What can you tell us about that?

HAMERMESH: Well, first of all, let me disagree on one thing. I don't like the term free time (laughter). Time is never free. I may think I'm enjoying myself, but every moment, implicitly, I'm making a choice on how to spend an hour or minute of time. Having said that, if I have more money, I do have more choices about what to do with my time. But I have so much money I got to chase around spending the money, and spending the money takes time. Even if I don't work, if I have a higher income, I'm going to be more stressed about it because I have more things I can do with that income.

GARCIA: I think people might see this as somewhat counterintuitive because even though the cliche, to some extent, is true that money can't buy you more time, in some cases, it seems like it can. So if I can afford, for example, to pay somebody to run my errands or clean my house, then that frees up my time, and it seems like I would be less stressed about how to fill it up. You're saying that, actually, more money still will make me more stressed about time because there's so much out there I can now afford to do, but I can't get more time in which to do it.

HAMERMESH: I mean, your example of hiring somebody to do this, that or the other thing is, of course, correct. But think about it. How many hours a day that you spend could you actually get somebody to do for you? You can't get somebody to sleep for you - with you, yes; for you, no. Work, right? You can't get somebody to work for you. The only areas where we can really get people to do things for us are certain, what we call, home productions, things that you do at home or around the house that you simply can't get somebody else to do. And even those - taking care of kids, if you have them - in some sense, has an awful lot of value where you may get pleasure from working. So the best guess I have is, at most 3 hours a day, you could find somebody to do something for you - beyond that, no chance at all.

GARCIA: Yeah. And Daniel, I think a lot of people might hear this and think, well, boo hoo. This is a great problem to have. If you have - if you're lucky enough to have an income that lets you afford the ability to do all these extra things, like, stop being so stressed about which thing you can't do, and enjoy the things that you can do.

HAMERMESH: I agree completely. I mean, I'm not very concerned about time stress. I mean, all I've done in the book - in part of the book, anyway - is show who will be more stressed for time. It's the rich. They're not stressed for income. They're stressed for time. I'm much more concerned about somebody whose time is less valuable but who really doesn't have enough to get by decently on. Boo hoo is exactly the right response, in my view.

GARCIA: Yeah. And the book does spend some time discussing how the well-off spend their time differently from people who don't have as much money. Can you give us a sense of what those differences are?

HAMERMESH: Sure. Of course, the well-off are often people who are earning a high income, so they're working more hours. But even if they aren't working at all, they're doing things differently from poorer people who also aren't working. They're watching less TV. They're sleeping a bit less. And they're doing a lot more different things in their leisure time. TV and sleeping are things you do if you're not well-off, whether you're not well-off 'cause you don't earn much or you're not well-off 'cause your spouse isn't working very much and earning very much or your rich uncle wasn't so rich after all.

GARCIA: Yeah. And your book also devotes a portion to how we spend time with other people or with one other person - togetherness. What did you discover about that?

HAMERMESH: We always think it's wonderful to be together with your spouse, partner, whomever. But in fact, other than sleeping, we spend perhaps four hours a day in the same location with our partners. And of those four hours, maybe one or 1 1/2 is actually together, doing the same thing. I can be in the TV room in our apartment, watching - I don't know what - "Victoria," for example, and my wife might be at her desk, doing some real work. We're together. We're even in the same room. But we're not really together, and I think this is very common.

GARCIA: How about the differences between how men and women spend their time?

HAMERMESH: Well, first of all, the biggest difference - obviously, men work for pay more. Women do more things around the house. The total amount of time that men and women spend working for pay or around the house is almost identical in the U.S. It's not that women are doing more things. They're doing different things than men.

The other thing is - which I think is quite cool - is how men and women in the U.S. and elsewhere differ in how much time they spend watching TV. Guys in America, on average, watch about 2 1/2, three hours more per week of TV than women. And the difference is in the same direction in every other rich country I've looked at. Men are the couch potatoes, not women.

GARCIA: What about parents versus non-parents and how much time the parents devote to raising their children and how single people use their time differently?

HAMERMESH: The main difference, of course, if you have young kids - it's taking a couple of hours a day if it's a really little kid. And the burden of that falls - or the joy - take your pick - falls disproportionately on women. By the time the kids are 10 or 12, they're taking much less time. I mean, you've got to eat lunch or dinner with them anyway, but you would in any event. So it's really a young kid thing. And the interesting thing on that is having a little kid not only changes how you spend your time; it changes when you spend your time. It sort of makes it very difficult for partners to coordinate their time. In other words, it helps reduce togetherness.

GARCIA: What's your favorite cliche about time?

HAMERMESH: Oh, time is money, of course.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

HAMERMESH: I wanted to call the book that, obviously. And I looked up on Google, and there must've been 10 other books called "Time Is Money." One of the ideas was to give the book a title from some song...


THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Time is on my side.

HAMERMESH: ...Like "Time Is On Your Side." Isn't that a song from the '50s or '60s?

GARCIA: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

HAMERMESH: OK. Well, there's one. And of course, I was going to say, time is not on your side. You got to decide what to do with it.

GARCIA: Daniel Hamerhesh, thanks so much.

HAMERMESH: Thanks for having me. Take care.

GARCIA: This podcast was produced by Willa Rubin. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR. Here's a little more of the Stones, by the way. And if you want to find out about the rest of the team's favorite songs and cliches about time, check out our Instagram page. That is @planetmoney.


THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Come running back to me, yeah. Time is on my side. Yes, it is. Time is on my side. Yes, it is.

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