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Enlightenment Now? – Quality of Life

Our journey through Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now continues, and we’re coming to the end! This blog post is about Quality of Life. Improvements in health, wealth, education, and sustenance are of course incredible progress. But, beyond the satisfaction of our basic needs, do we have a better quality of life now than in the past?

Free Time

Modern life is still far from easy. The economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in his 1930s paper, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, that, by now, we’d all be living lives of leisure. He was certainly wrong about that. The average European works 38 hours a week, and the average American works 40 hours.

But you can see where Keynes’ optimism came from. He knew that it wasn’t too long ago that there were really only two stages of life: work and death. Modernity had provided people with two additional life stages at the bookends of life: 1) childhood, where education, not work, was the priority; and 2) retirement, for the extra years of life expectancy that had been accrued by better health and safer environments. Even if Keynes’ vision hasn’t yet fully materialised, life has got significantly better. The average American now retires at age 62. One hundred years ago, the average American died at age 51. In 1880, almost 80% of American men of (what we now call) “retirement age” were still in the workforce. By 1990, the proportion had fallen to less than 20%.

In addition to these additional work-free stages of life, modernity has created a much shorter working week. In 1870, Western Europeans worked an average of 66 hours a week, while Americans worked 62. 150 years later, people in Western Europe now work 28 fewer hours a week and people in United States work 22 fewer hours. Many people also get paid holiday and sick leave as part of their job. Together, a shorter workweek, more paid time off, and a longer retirement, means that the fraction of a person’s life taken up by work has fallen by a quarter just since 1960.

Outside of paid work, housework has also substantially decreased. Electricity, running water, and appliances (what used to be called, “labour-saving devices”) have given us that time back – the many hours our grandmothers spent pumping, canning, churning, pickling, curing, sweeping, waxing, scrubbing, wringing, sudsing, drying, stitching, mending, knitting, darning, and “slaving over a hot stove”. In 1900, households (typically women) spent 58 hours a week doing housework. In 2011, that figure was only 15.5 hours. Time spent on laundry alone fell from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to 1.5 hours a week in 2014. That’s a tremendous achievement.

Added up, all these hours of life are precious grains. We may not live in a Keynesian utopia just yet, but we do have a much greater quantity of free time than most people did during Keynes’ lifetime. The question is, what do we do with all our free time? Does simply have a greater quantity of non-working life mean that our quality of life is now much greater?

How We Spend Our Spare Time

The phrasing on this question is deliberate. We still think of our time off as “spare time” - something left over once all the important stuff is out of the way. And we talk of “spending out time”, as if time is something we consume in order to get something else. Both of these turns of phrase are questionable. What if our spare time is actually what matters most in our lives? And what if time isn’t a unit we consume to get or have something, but instead the very essence of our lives?

These questions speak to the issue of what we’re doing with our free time. Has all this free time improved the quality of our lives? Going back to John Maynard Keynes, in his prediction that we’d all be living a life of leisure by now, he didn’t assume that we’d all be happy. Instead, he claimed that we’d have a new problem to grapple with, namely what to do with our freedom:

“Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

So how well are we doing at this task? Pinker notes three areas in which we seem to be living wisely: spending time with family, in nature, and engaging in the arts and literature.

Family life: Pinker notes parents now get to spend much more time with their children. In 1924, only 45% of mothers spent two or more hours a day with their children, and only 60% of fathers spent at least an hour a day with them. This has substantially increased over the past few generations. By 1999, the proportions had risen to 71% and 83%. Many parents will attest that time spent with their kids is one of the most meaningful ways they could spend their time.

Spending time in nature: We know that, when people don’t have to deal with existential threats, they are freed up to care about social issues and the environment. A symptom of this transition is international tourism. Pinker points towards tourism as one of the main reasons behind the explosion in nature reserves and national parks around the world – areas protected from development and economic exploitation – which now exceeds 160,000 and increases daily.

Engaging in the arts and literature. Pinker shows how modern life not only affords access to the internet, but also radio, television, movies, musical recordings, books, and newspapers. Digital technologies of course also afford access to every newspaper and magazine in the world, every great work of literature that is out of copyright, an encyclopedia more than 70 times the size of Britannica with about the same level of accuracy, and every classic work of art and music.

It’s The “How”, Not The “What”

Even if people are choosing wisely in the three ways Pinker points out, it’s clear that people are also choosing the path of consumerism and materialism – both forms of extrinsic valuing, caring about stuff that is useful rather than good in itself. Back in 1930, Keynes also noted that: “It will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”

The question is, how much are we trapped in an instrumental view of life – valuing the means of life, rather than things that are valuable in themselves? When parents are spending time with their children, how much of this time is spent reading to them or helping them with their homework so that they can receive a good education and get ahead in life? When people are spending time in nature, how much of this time is about getting the perfect selfie or racking up new peak experiences to look back on? And when people are engaging in the arts and literature, how much of this entertainment is actually a distraction from the stress and busyness of life, rather than an appreciation and celebration of it?

My point – and Keynes’ too – is that cultivating a love of life is hard. It’s difficult to switch from getting shit done to valuing people and activities as ends in themselves. These are two very different modes of being – something we discussed in the first few blog posts in this series. I suggested that, in a post-Enlightenment Age of Control, we start to see everything more in terms of its instrumental value – what something can do for us – rather than appreciating its intrinsic worth – caring about something in itself, regardless of how useful or productive it is. People become human resources, bodies become machines, ancient rainforests become ecosystem services, animals become meat.

I do not deny we’ve made significant progress when it comes to what we do with our spare time. But what we do with our lives is not the same as how we go about our lives. Do we use our time to achieve something else, such as pleasure or success? Or do we allocate our time to things we find intrinsically valuable – things we do with a sense of worth or meaning? They are two very different things. Pinker is right in saying we’ve made progress when it comes to what we do with our time. Once our basic needs are met, we can start to do what really matters. But our quality of life is determined less by what we do and more by how we do it. That requires a bigger cultural and psychological shift, away from instrumental values to more intrinsic ones. Only then will we start to solve what Keynes called humanity’s “real, permanent problem”.

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