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Pressed for Time

“More, better, faster. So many of us take these as unproblematic goods. Judith Wajcman’s Pressed for Time—written in elegant, clear, accessible language—will make you take a new look at this kind of thinking. Armed with her analysis of the co-construction of technology, social practice, and our sense of what matters, ‘more, better, faster,’ and our modern culture of time is made problematic, insecure, and interesting. A must-read not only for a range of social scientists and humanists, but for everyone who wants to understand how we have remade time and remade ourselves in digital culture."”–Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other


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An Excerpt from
Pressed for Time
The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism
by Judy Wajcman

Chapter Three

The Time–Pressure Paradox

The time we have to spend each day is elastic: it is stretched by the passions we feel; it is shrunk by those we inspire; and all of it is filled by habit.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

The ability to choose how you allocate your time lies at the core of a positive notion of freedom. Idleness and abundant leisure were once markers of the aristocracy. Today a busy, frenetic existence in which both work and leisure are crowded with multiple activities denotes high status. However, just as in the past, people’s control over their own time largely depends on their personal circumstances and financial resources. While this is equally true of our relationship to technology, this chapter will focus on changing patterns of work and family life that affect men’s and women’s experiences of time pressure.

A major theme of this book is that the rhythm of our lives, the very meaning of work and leisure, is being reconfigured by digitalization. But at this juncture, it is helpful to consider other, often overlooked, dimensions to and causes of harriedness. I want to bring to bear on this question some interesting and credible data about how people actually use their time. Such close scrutiny will reveal the limitation of treating all time as the same, as if we only inhabit one time–space, that of acceleration. It may also help to resolve the riddle of how it is that we often feel we have less time for the things we want to do than we actually have.

How people spend their time matters for quality of life, irrespective of the income generated, as economists and even governments have begun to grasp. An indication of this was when former French president Nicolas Sarkozy set up the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress to explore the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress. It concluded that “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well–being.” Chaired by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the commission highlights the fallacy of assessing well–being in terms of financial resources alone. This is part of a wider recognition in economics that people do not necessarily become happier when they become richer.

In a similar but more philosophical vein, Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom sets out to change our thinking about what makes for quality of life. According to the authors, how much time we have matters just as much as how much money we have. The book’s argument is built around one powerful idea, that being able to choose how you spend your time is central to an individual’s sense of freedom:

When we say that someone “has more time” than someone else, we do not mean that she has literally a twenty–fifth hour in her day. Rather, we mean to say that she has fewer constraints and more choices in how she can choose to spend her time. She has more “autonomous control” over her time. “Temporal autonomy” is a matter of having “discretionary” control over your time.

Conversely, the less you are able to determine how your time is spent, the more your being is “unfree,” or deprived. The concept of discretionary time as a measure of freedom is very appealing. It echoes earlier ideas about the desire for temporal sovereignty, or control over one’s time, as a significant measure of life satisfaction and well–being. Such notions support normative arguments that treat the allocation and availability of time as important dimensions of social justice and of legitimate political concern. Instead of focusing on speed, per se, to further our exploration of the acceleration society, we should be looking at changing dynamics in the distribution of time.

Free Time and Time Pressure

It is no wonder, then, that huge interest has been generated by the idea that time is in short supply in modern societies. Complaints about the twenty–four–hour day being too short to fit everything in are common in the academic and popular presses. The inexorable increase in the pace of life is viewed as a perverse symptom of late modernity, leading to increasing pressure and stress. Understanding why time pressures have increased is a critical social question not least because of the consequences for physical and mental health outcomes.

Sparking this debate was Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American. It claimed that from the 1970s through the 1980s, Americans were working longer, and that this applied generally across the spectrum on income and family type. Her argument was echoed by many others, including Arlie Hochschild, whose book title The Time Bind entered general currency. The finding that American workers are logging more time at the workplace than their parents and grandparents touched a chord in the popular imagination. Whereas economic progress and increased prosperity were supposed to deliver more leisure time, instead time scarcity and the paucity of leisure time seem to be the result. Media exposure of notions like the “time squeeze” and “time famine” rapidly became part of the folk narrative about the pressure of time in modern life.

A linked concern was whether, as a consequence, parents are spending fewer hours with their children. Most Americans agree or strongly agree to survey questions asking whether “parents today don’t spend enough time with their children.” The cultural image of the modern mother changed from the devoted homemaker to the frenzied, sleepless working mom. The conventional wisdom accompanying this change is that today’s mothers, who juggle the dual roles of worker and family caregiver, spend less time with their children and receive relatively little help from fathers. Social commentators worry about the quality of family life. The politics of time has thus become a major issue that has largely taken the form of a discussion about work–family balance and the quality of contemporary life.

How Much Time?

But how can we measure the pace of life? As a subjective state, an acceleration of the speed of life affects people’s experience of time. It causes individuals to consider time to be scarce, to feel rushed and pressed for time. In other words, people feel that they can no longer find time to complete the tasks and activities most important to them.

That time pressure is a common experience is evidenced by the fact that an increasing proportion of the population report feeling short of time. Since 1965, the US time–use researcher John Robinson has been asking adults, “Would you say you always feel rushed, even to do things you have to do, only sometimes feel rushed, or almost never feel rushed?” The proportion of Americans reporting that they always feel rushed rose from 25 percent in 1965 to 35 percent forty years later. Almost half now also say that they almost never have time on their hands. According to most evidence, people perceive leisure time as scarcer and more hectic. And this is also true cross–nationally, where there has been consistent historical growth of busy feelings through the last part of the twentieth century.

Do these widespread perceptions of time pressure reflect the behavioral evidence of how people spend their time? Has leisure time actually decreased?

Let us begin by looking at trends in the hours of paid work. Several commentators have shown that there is surprisingly little empirical evidence supporting Schor’s claim that the average length of the workweek has changed appreciably in recent decades. The issue is still a matter of controversy, at least at the margins, as different methodologies yield somewhat different conclusions, and there is significant variation between different countries. In the United States, average hours have held broadly constant for many years, as they have for example in Australia, Finland, and Sweden. In European countries, such as France and Germany, they declined as a result of deliberate government policies designed to reduce working hours. As a result, in France and Germany, employees work only about 80 percent as many hours a year as employees in the United States.

Overall, however, in both the United States and Europe, there has been no straightforward increase in working hours over the last fifty years.

Indeed, between 1965 and 2010, when over one–third of Americans felt rushed, their free time had actually increased. Using data from time diaries, the most direct and reliable methods of measuring free time, this finding has been replicated in multiple surveys across nineteen countries. The long–term growth in leisure for the working–age population is evident in nearly every country for which we have appropriate evidence.

So how do we account for this mismatch with people’s experience of a rising deficit of time?

A range of explanations has been proffered to account for this paradox. They all contain partial truths, and indeed are not mutually exclusive, so it is worth considering the contrasting approaches here in some depth. Let us begin by considering those that point to economic change as the root cause of a time squeeze.

One key to this paradox lies in distinguishing between the amounts of time available to different groups of people within a country. While the average workweek has barely changed over the last few decades, the overall trend is one of an increasing polarization of working time, between those who work very long hours and others who work few or no hours. Long hours in some groups are countered by growing numbers of employees working relatively short weeks. The increased dispersion means that the proportion of those with substantial increases in workloads has grown. Critically, long workweeks impinge disproportionately on dual–career families, as both members of a couple with a very long (combined) workweek are more likely to be highly educated and in high–status jobs. The fifty–plus–hours week is thus predominantly a characteristic of the professional and managerial class, those “likely to shape the terms of public discussion and debate.”

When theorists of the acceleration society refer to the hastening pace of life, they have in mind the abstract subject. They are not attuned to the detailed manner and circumstances in which time is organized into daily routines by gendered individuals and negotiated within households. Consequently, they fail to see that what happens to an individual’s average hours of work is not the same as what happens to work collectively within households. The vicissitudes of scheduling and the intricacy with which our lives are tied to others can only be fully understood by treating the household, rather than the individual, as the unit of analysis.

One of the greatest social changes of the second part of the twentieth century has been the widespread participation of women in the workforce. While the contribution of men has significantly declined in the UK, the United States, and most industrial countries, the hours that women (especially mothers) contribute to the labor market have significantly increased. This has led to dual–earner families outnumbering male–breadwinner families. Today, roughly 60 percent of two–parent households with children under age eighteen have two working parents. The generalization of dual–earner couple is not limited to the United States but is a trait of every economically advanced country. Discussions about average working hours thus mask a dramatic redistribution of paid work between the sexes.

It is as if much of the paid work has been transferred from men to women. The resulting dual–earner households are supplying more working hours to the labor market than ever before. Time pressure is especially strong in families with dependants, where both husband and wife are in full–time employment. The widespread perception that life has become more rushed, therefore, has as much to do with real increases in the combined work commitments of family members as it is about changes in the working time of individuals. “What, for more than a decade, has been taken to be a controversy about overwork (i.e., trends in individual hours) . . . is actually a manifestation of the difficulties of reconciling (paid) work and family responsibilities, following the historical demise of the male breadwinner model.” This transformation in family composition and gender relations is central to explaining the time deficit.

In order to understand our experience of living in an acceleration society then, we need to consider how households are organizing their working and nonworking lives and be attuned to gender differences in time pressure. Feminist scholars have long argued that the squeeze placed on women’s time is due to combining paid employment with their responsibility for the household’s operation. Indeed, time–use data suggest that time poverty is a particularly widespread experience among working mothers, who juggle work, family, and leisure.

Unsurprisingly, single mothers feel the worst about the time they allocate to their children and their numbers have expanded greatly since the 1960s. The breakdown of marriages involving children can radically exacerbate time pressure if a lone parent is forced to serve as both breadwinner and homemaker. When children are reared outside a twoparent home, fathers are much less likely than mothers to shoulder the day–to–day responsibility of caregiving—that is, fathers are far likelier than mothers to drop the parental role altogether. Mothers cope by reducing their hours of paid work, especially when the children are young, in order to perform the household work and child care. As lone mothers are overrepresented among the poor, they are also unlikely to be able to buy paid domestic help. Lone parents, then, have much less discretionary time than dual–earner couples, with or without children.

Time Spent with Children

For people with children, spending time with them is regarded as one of the most desirable uses of discretionary time. We want both enough time and “quality time” with our children. Let us first consider the amount, as there is a widespread view that time pressure is squeezing out precious time with children. For example, Hochschild claims that family time is being crowded out by long hours of paid work. In fact, time–use data show that both mothers and fathers are spending more time with their children than ever before. Although there are variations between countries, overall, parents are averaging more time with their children, despite working longer hours. So how is this possible?

This aspect of the time–pressure paradox is addressed by Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson, and Melissa Milkie in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life: “although parent–child time has remained steady or increased over the years, almost half of American parents continue to feel they spend too little time with their children.” The explanation, as we shall see, centers on the cultural ideals of intensive parenting combined with the nostalgia for a mythical past of more quality family time. But let me first report their extensive findings on feelings about time.

Among employed mothers, almost half (47 percent) feel they spend too little time with their children, whereas only 18 percent of nonemployed mothers report this. Working mothers are also the most likely to feel most time pressured and that they are constantly multitasking. Married fathers are significantly less likely to feel “always rushed.” Where the authors found very large differences was between mothers and fathers in feelings of “too little time” for oneself. Some 57 percent of married fathers and 75 percent of employed mothers expressed this. And whereas married mothers craved more time alone and with their husbands, married fathers wished they had more time with their children.

How, then, have parents preserved their time with children? A common explanation is that much housework has been mechanized. We will consider this argument in chapter 5. Suffice it to say here is that, despite dramatic improvements in domestic technology, the amount of time spent on household tasks has not actually shown any corresponding dramatic decline. However, there has been a marked shift in the composition of time away from routine domestic work (cooking and cleaning) and toward child care but also shopping and odd jobs. But the total time in unpaid domestic labor of all kinds held constant over the twentieth century.

The major change has come from working women themselves, who reduce their time in unpaid labor at home as they move into the workforce. However, they do not remotely reduce their housework hour–for–hour for time spent in paid labor. And while their male partners increase their own time in housework, this is not nearly as much as working wives reduce theirs. The upshot is that rather less unpaid household labor gets done overall in the dual–earner household—but women’s total combined time in paid and unpaid household labor is substantially greater than is the typical nonemployed woman’s in domestic labor alone. Working mothers’ combined time in paid and unpaid household labor typically exceeds fathers’ by five hours a week and nonemployed mothers’ by nineteen hours a week. The working woman is much busier than either her male colleagues or her housewife counterpart.

Moreover, it is also primarily women who adjust their working hours in relation to the number and ages of their children. The decrease in women’s employment comes with the birth of the first child, and they continue to curtail their hours after they have children. Fathers, if anything, tend to increase hours of employment after the birth of a child. Men and women thus make different decisions in allocating their time, based in part on choice and in part on institutional forces and cultural pressures. These differences have diminished in recent years, but mothers continue to adjust their schedules more than fathers do. As a result, there is still a pay penalty associated with motherhood, whereby mothers’ wages lag behind fathers’ in virtually all developed countries.

That women fit themselves to their family shows up in their time strain; married women want more time to themselves because they have adjusted to being there for their children. Cultural expectations about what mothers and fathers should do remains strong, with mothers feeling more of a need to put children and family first as they sacrifice their own need. Overall, it appears that parents are giving themselves over to rearing children to the extent possible given other demands on their time and limited resources in some families. Yet they feel as if their efforts are not enough.

As noted above, these feelings of time pressure are largely the result of normative changes in expectations about good parenting. Among both working–class and middle–class mothers, good mothering is defined in terms of devoting unlimited time and resources to their children. As family size becomes smaller, children become a central focus and are seen to require extraordinarily labor–intensive parenting. Intensive mothering is a cultural ideal to which women are expected to sacrifice careers, leisure time, and whatever else is necessary to ensure that their children thrive.

Fathers are expected to be equally involved in care giving. The last half–century has witnessed dramatic changes in men’s attitudes toward parenting and in conceptions of masculinity more broadly. However, the shared belief in egalitarian family relationships has not yet been matched by men’s behavior. For example, the substantial increase in the time fathers spend with children is three times larger on weekends than workdays, with the result that routine child care responsibilities are left to their spouses on days when they must work. And, rather than fathers replacing mothers’ time, mothers are present for most of the time that fathers are caring for their children (see chapter 5). While this family time spent together may well be the most cherished, it does result in a gender gap in leisure, as I argue below.

Finally, women’s role as household manager also adds to their feeling of always feeling rushed. Being responsible for managing something as complex as children’s lives and a home, even when away from home, “may also account for the large gender discrepancy between fathers’ and mothers’ feelings about needing more time for oneself, feeling rushed, and feeling like they do more than one thing at a time.” Mothers’ greater subjective sense of time pressures may derive from their being the one who continues to orchestrate family life—a reality that is difficult to capture in linear time–diary data.

Such arguments involve moving beyond quantifying the volume of (paid and unpaid) hours worked in order to broach the more subtle, qualitative aspects of the meaning and experience of time. They suggest the need to explore the ways in which time is ordered and practiced as well as the density or intensity of the lived experience of time. It is clear that time pressure is complex and multidimensional. Below I will outline a schema that delineates three different mechanisms that cause time scarcity. But first let us turn more broadly to the cultural connotations of being busy.

Cultural Acceleration: Busy Lives

So far we have examined a range of economic and demographic factors that contribute to time pressure, such as changes in the labor market, working hours, and the composition of households. We have also considered how contemporary discourses of hyperparenting heighten perceptions of time scarcity. But there are another set of explanations that primarily focus on consumption. These explanations are related in that the dramatic shift in women’s employment coincided with the “overwork culture,” turning workers into “willing slaves” who are prepared to work ever–longer hours in a society that equates busyness with success and status.

Such arguments see consumption in purely negative terms, as fueling long working hours because of our competitive consumerist culture. According to Schor, we are trapped in a “squirrel cage,” an insidious cycle of work and spend where we compete with our neighbors’ lifestyles and compensate for our lack of time with children by buying them things. Why, she asks, don’t affluent North Americans “downshift” and reduce both their hours of work and levels of consumption as a way out of the work–spend cycle?

If only things were so straightforward. There are deep–seated psychological reasons for apparently unnecessary consumption in a capitalist society in which people’s sense of self and sense of freedom come to be defined by money and possessions. For a long time social scientists have talked about the complex relationship between shopping and individual identity formation and the extent to which purchasing goods is a social practice oriented to others. The requirement for individuals to narrate their own identity through styles of consumption brings with it the demands of trying new and varied experiences, and this leads individuals toward the insatiable pursuit of more cultural practices. In short, being busy has become a necessary condition of a fulfilling lifestyle.

Perhaps cultural discourses that value action–packed lives, coupled with high levels of consumption, are to blame for upward–spiraling perceptions of feeling rushed. Indeed, busyness may result not only in stress but, for some, in feelings of increased happiness or life satisfaction arising from the positive energy connected to states of arousal. Such an approach reformulates the discussion about the socioeconomic correlates of time pressure into a debate around the manifestations and consequences of busyness. “Whereas the concept of ‘time pressure’ is negative in its connotations, ‘busyness’ is at worst neutral, and may indeed carry with it the positive connotations of ‘busyness’ as an antonym to ‘idleness.’ ”

So has the notion of busyness acquired a new positive meaning in our culture? Is busyness a status symbol for those with higher social capital? In an intriguing argument, Jonathan Gershuny claims that whereas a century ago those in the upper income bracket were defined by their leisure, in a reversal of Thorstein Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class, nowadays prestige accords to those who work long hours and are busiest at work.31

To this point I have described how the increase in dual–job households in conjunction with shifting norms of parenting contribute to time pressure. Entirely consistent with this explanation, however, are two further arguments. One is to do with the density of leisure itself, created by the desire for ever more intensive consumption of goods and services.32 The second involves not so much a change in behavior but a change in the way feelings of “busyness” are constructed out of these: “the growth in busy feelings may in part reflect an increasingly positive view of ‘busyness’ that results from its association with the increasingly busy lifestyle of the most privileged groups in developed societies.”33 Today, it is conspicuous devotion to time–intensive work activities rather than the conspicuous consumption of leisure that is the signifier of high social status.

“Busyness” is a subjective state that results from the individual’s assessment of his or her recent or expected activity patterns in the light of current norms and expectations. However, for busyness to be an externally observable behavior, it would need to be reflected in long hours of paid work and in the density of work and leisure, that is, the frequency and variety of activities undertaken. (It would also be evident in the multiplicity of simultaneous activities, a topic not covered here but which, I will argue in subsequent chapters, is key in the digital age.)

Gershuny finds little evidence for such objective behavioral changes in busyness. While higher–skilled groups did increase their paid work time relative to lower–skilled groups, paid work overall declined for both men and women. Significantly, there was no increase in the intensity of activities (on either a workday or a nonwork day). Although this empirical evidence cannot prove that there has been a change in the social construction of busyness, Gershuny concludes that it is consistent with his argument. If there has been no behavioral change, then the explanation must lie in the changed cultural meaning of busyness. One part of the resolution of the time–pressure paradox, then, is that busyness, and not leisure, is the “badge of honor.”

According to this view, then, busyness is largely a cultural orientation. Certainly, the argument resonates with the representation of some groups, such as financial traders and corporate executives, who are invested in high–pressure, burnout careers and whose status derives from their workaholism. However, the parallel with Veblen’s leisure class, while striking, exaggerates the freedom of this new superordinate class whose work pressures are largely the result of managerial performance measures. They may embrace the high–speed work culture, but it is important to emphasize that it is not entirely of their choosing.

This is particularly pertinent given the extent to which, over the last decade or so, firms have sought to convert many high–wage and full–benefit workers to contingent and contract workers. The managers and professionals who have survived work longer hours to ensure their job security and increase their chances of promotion. Long hours are the principal means of demonstrating commitment and ambition to employers. A concurrent trend in the economy has been the expansion of work schedules into evenings and weekends. The profound influence of mobile technologies on working time is the subject of subsequent chapters. At the very least, discussions about the symbolic status of busyness should take into account changed employment conditions and concerns about job security.

Moreover, the culture of ostentatious work performance is one in which men can more easily immerse themselves than can women. While there has been a convergence in women’s and men’s aspirations for high–powered managerial or professional careers, my own research on corporate managers reveals that the domestic circumstances of women differ from those of men. While a significant number of male senior managers have partners who are not in paid employment, women managers generally live in dual–career households. Women are therefore more likely to experience intense friction between the demands of career and family life. By overlooking this issue, Gershuny leaves us with the impression that the new world of work is gender neutral. The changing norms of busyness are a vital element in resolving the time–pressure paradox, but we must be wary of the implication that it is equally seductive to all.

There is a vast literature on the nature of consumption and the cultural tastes of modern consumers. However, little is known about the pace or busyness of leisure participation. To measure the “voraciousness” of leisure consumption, Sullivan analyzed the frequency of five out–of home leisure activities: going to the cinema/concert/theater; eating/ drinking out in a restaurant, café, or pub; playing sports/keeping fit/ walking; watching live sports; and attending leisure activity groups.36 The logic of this list is that these activities take both time and money to engage in and require a degree of temporal planning and coordination. Indeed, she found that high–status, dual–earner couples with dependent children use both temporal strategies of consumption the most. They have the highest level of participation in these leisure activities and they continuously upgrade their consumer goods (without the time to use them).

Once more, gender and social status reinforce each other so that the greatest differential in voraciousness is between men with high social status and women with the lowest. Embracing a busy, diverse pattern of cultural consumption practices has thus become a mark of distinction among high status groups.

To date, most literature on time pressure has focused on the impact of working practices, both in the sphere of employment and in the domestic sphere. In modern, time–pressured societies, the pace of leisure is also of signal importance. I will return to this topic below, and later I will be looking specifically at how ICTs intensify leisure. But first, such arguments about the busyness of work and leisure time point to the difficulty and complexity of measuring the temporal rhythms of daily life. Not all activities have the same tempo. Time as measured by the ticking of the clock cannot remotely capture our quotidian experience of multiple and overlapping temporalities. If we feel short of time, it can be for a variety of reasons and take a variety of forms. Indeed, it may even be the case that some of us have more time, but not time of the right kind or when we need it.


Judy Wajcman
© 2015, 227 pages , 8 halftones
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 9780226380841 E-book $16.99 ISBN: 9780226196503

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