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Getting frenetic in Fargo

Even in backwater America, busyness is becoming the new god

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Fargo is far from a Type A city, but ever there, in the heart of rural America, 'People are going nuts.'

CARRIE SNYDER / FARGO-MOORHEAD FORUM Enlarge Image

Fargo is far from a Type A city, but ever there, in the heart of rural America, 'People are going nuts.'

One man says he works 72 hours a week because everyone else at his office does; he's thinking about cutting back on sleep so he can be more productive. A woman says the last time she had a moment for herself was when she went for her annual mammogram. Another says she has decided life is too hectic to have kids -- ever.

Then a woman bursts in, apologizing for being late to this focus group convened precisely to discuss the fast pace of modern life. She got stuck in traffic, she explains.

I look out the window from our perch at the bar of the 18-storey Radisson Hotel and see just a handful of cars at a stoplight. Beyond that, acres of cornfields. We are not in New York, Washington, Los Angeles or another frenetic, Type A city.

We're in Fargo, N.D.

I had been searching for bright spots, for places where the too-muchness of life hadn't taken hold, and I had figured rural America might breathe a little easier. I was wrong. "Life is stressful in Fargo," Ann Burnett, a researcher who convened the focus group, told me. "People are going nuts.''

Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became not just a way of life but a badge of honour. And life, sociologists say, became an exhausting everydayathon. People now tell pollsters they're too busy to register to vote, too busy to date, to make friends outside the office, to take a vacation, to sleep, to have sex. As for multitasking, one 2012 survey found 38 million Americans shop on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. And another found the compulsion to multitask was making us as stupid as if we were stoned.

Burnett, a communications professor at North Dakota State University, has studied a trove of holiday letters she's collected stretching back to the 1960s that serves as an archive of the rise of American busyness. Words and phrases that began surfacing in the 1970s and 1980s -- "hectic," "whirlwind," "consumed," "crazy," "constantly on the run" and "way too fast" -- now appear with astonishing frequency.

People compete over being busy; it's about showing status.

"If you're busy, you're important. You're leading a full and worthy life," Burnett says. Keeping up with the Joneses used to be about money, cars and homes.

Now, she explains, "if you're not as busy as the Joneses, you'd better get cracking."

Even as neuroscience is beginning to show that at our most idle, our brains are most open to inspiration and creativity -- and history proves great works of art, philosophy and invention were created during leisure time -- we resist taking time off. Psychologists treat burned-out clients who can't shake the notion the busier you are, the faster you work, and the more you multi-task, the more you are considered competent, smart, successful. It's the Protestant work ethic in overdrive.

In the Middle Ages, this kind of frenzy -- called acedia, the opposite of sloth -- was one of Catholicism's seven deadly sins. But today, busyness is seen as so valuable that people are actually happier when they're busy, says Christopher Hsee, a psychologist and professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago.

"If people remain idle, they are miserable," he wrote in Psychological Science in 2010. "If idle people become busy, they will be happier."

Life in the early 21st century wasn't supposed to be so hectic. In a 1930 essay, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour work week by 2030, when we'd all have time to enjoy "the hour and the day virtuously and well."

During the 1950s, the post-Second World War boom in productivity, along with rising incomes and standards of living, led economists and politicians to predict that by 1990, Americans would work 22 hours a week, six months a year, and retire before age 40.

While accepting the Republican Party's nomination for president in 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower envisioned a world where 'leisure' will be abundant, so "all can develop the life of the spirit, of reflection, of religion, of the arts, of the full realization of the good things of the world."

At the time, the idea leisure would soon be meant for all, rather than just a wealthy elite, was quite radical. A 1959 article in the Harvard Business Review warned "boredom, which used to bother only aristocrats, had become a common curse."

In the early 1960s, when TV broadcaster Eric Sevareid was asked what he considered the gravest crisis facing Americans, he said: "the rise of leisure."

Leisure for all was exactly what the U.S. labour movement had been pursuing for more than a century. As late as 1923, the steel industry required 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Finally, it seemed, workers were about to savour shorter, saner work hours. So, what happened?

First: Life got more expensive and wages failed to keep up. College tuition alone jumped 1,120 percent from 1978 to 2012. At the same time, wages have fallen to record lows as a share of America's gross domestic product. Until 1975, wages made up 50 per cent of GDP in the U.S.; in 2012, they were 43.5 per cent. And, as a recent obnoxious Cadillac commercial boasts, we work hard to buy more things: The Commerce Department reports consumers spent $1.2 trillion in 2011 on unnecessary stuff, 11.2 per cent of all consumer spending, way up from four per cent in 1959.

Second: Jobs have become less mechanical and work more creative. New York University sociologist Dalton Conley argues today's knowledge-economy professions in art, technology, engineering and academics are similar to the pursuits of the mind that the ancient Greek philosophers envisioned as leisure. So, we work a lot because we enjoy it.

"Work has become central in our lives, answering the religious questions of 'Who are you?' and 'How do you find meaning and purpose in your life?' " Ben Hunnicutt, one of the few leisure scholars in America, tells me.

Taking time for yourself is tantamount to weakness. One man in Burnett's focus group, who works two jobs and juggles caring for two special-needs children, says he longs to go canoeing but feels he just can't. "Leisure sometimes just feels wrong."

Back in Fargo, Ann Burnett has scrawled a big letter "A" across the top of only a handful of holiday letters from her collection. These, she says, are "authentic," written by people who have stepped off the hamster wheel long enough to savour everyday moments. And in each, there is a realization their time on Earth is limited.

Maybe that's the attraction of busyness. If we never take a moment to stop and think, we don't have to face that hard truth. And without time to reflect, our drive to show status can mean we create busyness even when it doesn't exist -- like the idea of a traffic jam in Fargo.

 

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 D5

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