Sorry, I’ve no time. Really?

Posted by on Jun 20, 2019 in Blog | 2 comments


It’s often said that while we are a wealthy society, we are time poor. Now the first claim is undoubtedly true, but the second should have a serious question mark placed alongside it. Time poor – in comparison to who and when?

Certainly not the ancient Hebrews. They worked a six day week from sunrise to sunset – on average a 72 hour working week. Indeed, a 70 hour plus working week has been the norm for most of human history. Robert Whaples, professor of economics at Wake Forest University has demonstrated that in the 1800’s a work week of 70 or more hours was common in the US, while Robert Fogel has taken considerable effort to calculate the number of usual working hours versus leisure hours at different periods in history and has convincingly demonstrated that the number of lifetime working hours has steadily decreased while lifetime leisure hours has soared. Here is one of his table of results, which includes a prediction for 2040:

Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040 USA

Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000

Source: Fogel (2000)

Next time you want to complain about your exhausting 50 hour week, imagine your great-great aunt snorting from the grave, “Call that a working week!” Furthermore, the predictions are that our leisure time will keep on increasing. While those alive in 1880 put in 182 100 working hours in their lifetime, those alive 160 years later in 2040 are likely to be required to contribute a paltry 75 900 hours to the labour market – and that in spite of the fact that they will live so much longer than their 1880 relatives did. Indeed, those alive in 1880 usually had a mere 43 800 hours available for leisure in their entire lifetime – whilst those who plan to be with us in 2040, will have a massive 246 000 leisure hours  – or more than 5 times as many leisure hours as those in the 19th century.

Once you have let these figures sink in, you will realize that it is passing strange that the average local church is finding it near impossible to find volunteers to staff the modest selection of programs they run. The routine response to appeals for volunteers is that we are all far too busy. Really? Doing what?

Ah, that’s the crunch question, because truth to tell most of us are not staring at the ceiling desperate for something to do. We might have 5 times more leisure hours than our ancestors, but my, we have more than enough options to fill those hours. Think of the fascinating things we do. On average, people are spending about an hour a day on social media. For many, most of that hour goes on liking Facebook pages, happily affirming other people’s dinner choices. TV continues to take up large chunks of time, with the 15-44 age bracket watching least, but still clocking up an average of 2 hours per day, whilst those over 65 stay glued to their screens for double that time. On line games now occupy the time of vast numbers. The 1.8 billion people who participated in online games in 2014 is expected to rise to 2.4 billion by 2021. Add these three together, and many people are spending over four hours per day on TV, Facebook and online games. None of those options were available to our great-great aunts, so of course it seemed like they had so much more time for worthy things than we do. Without those distractions we’d have a bonus 28 hours a week. If your average book can be read in 12 hours, why, we could read a book a week and still have 16 more discretionary hours.

Historian David Bebbington undertook a significant study of evangelical Christianity and what makes it tick, and came up with what has come to be known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral – a set of four priorities that lie at the heart of evangelical faith. These are what Bebbington calls Biblicism (the Bible really, really matters to evangelicals); Conversionism (evangelicals believe that people must come to a personal and saving faith in Jesus); Crucicentrism (the Cross is central to evangelical faith) and Activism (the genuineness of people’s faith is demonstrated in adherents being willing to work hard to serve God’s work in the world.) Elsewhere I have written about some of the changes we have seen in this set of priorities, but for this post, I would simply comment on the drift away from activism. People are no longer willing to put their hands up to staff ministries in the local church. The result is that local churches now employ more staff than ever before. We are a wealthy generation, so we don’t mind paying for extra staff – just so long as no serious demands are made on our time.

While it is easy to fall into “tut tut” mode over this (my, isn’t this awful!), that’s not the goal of this post. I’d rather highlight the enormous opportunity that all our discretionary time gives us. We are not time poor. We have far, far more discretionary time than any generation before us – and we even have time saving gadgets to help us with tasks that previously have consumed so many hours. We really do have enough time to do some things that actually matter. If we can link the opportunity afforded to us with a clear set of life priorities, we might well live a life that is a little less ordinary… one with enough time to do something that makes a bit of a difference. Why wouldn’t we walk that path?

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Enjoyed the read

  2. Thanks Brian – once again challenging me, this time to reflect on my own use of time. I set myself a reading goal each year for books but social media can chew up too much time that should be diverted to books!

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