Kennon-Green & Co. Global Asset Management and Value Investing

Congratulations – You Have 5 Hours More Per Week Than Your Parents (and 40 More Hours Than Your Great Grandparents)

19th Century Peasant with Pigs

Gregg Easterbrook points out that Jesse Ausubel and Arnulf Grubler of Rockefeller University have proven that the typical hours spent working has been declining almost in a perfect line for 15 consecutive decades.

John Robinson of the University of Maryland and Geoffrey Godbey of Penn State University have done research showing that “Americans now have more free time than at any point in the nation’s history.”  They calculate that since 1960, the average American has gained 5 hours of free time per week even after adjusting for women entering the work force.

The numbers are truly incredible.  Compared to 1880, according to University of Chicago professor Robert Fogel, the average man has 40 hours of relaxation time per week (e.g., come home, take off your shoes, and sit on the couch or anything else that doesn’t require you to be working to support yourself).  The average woman has 30 more hours per week.  Much of this is due to the fact that we have laundry machines and dishwashers, power tools and electronics, which do the work for us.

How do most American use this extraordinary gift?  Their research shows most Americans use this free time to watch television.  Rather than working more, reading more, picking up new skills such as learning a second language or how to cook, going to the gym and improving themselves, they sit in front of a television.

Right now, at this moment, you are living in the most prosperous, wonderful time in the entire history of the world.  We – you, right now as you read this and me, right now as I write this – are sitting at the apex of a great civilization.

When, then, are people so unhappy?  It’s complicated and there are several factors at play, including greater interconnectedness so now you hear about negative events in real-time from the other side of the planet making them seem more common when they are actually declining precipitously.  Another thing that should not be discounted is the fact that other research has shown happiness is the result of being richer than your neighbor.  That is, a lot of people are wired to feel good about themselves only when they have more than their friends and family, not when their absolute standard of living is high.  It’s completely irrational but it is a real force in culture and politics.