Work-Life Imbalance: How the Pandemic Ruined Our Understanding of “Free” Time 

An Excerpt from Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal by Gary S. Cross

Originally Published by LitHub 

On the cover of Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal by Gary S. Cross, there is an impressionist  painting of two white women lounging in the grass.

Day to day, we experience time in blocks of work and freedom—periods of obligation (with or without pay) and durations of choice. Sleep is necessary down time. Periodically, we become conscious of these blocks, especially when they seem unbalanced or disrupted.

Despite living in a society that heavily prioritizes work, many feel overworked and seek (however impracticably) a better balance between obliged and free time. Others experience a surfeit of “play” time due to unemployment, retirement, and crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to layoffs and shutdowns of schools. Such “free” time seems deprived of the social and personal meanings as well as the economic advantages of work time.

Time grows tedious when unstructured and many ultimately find the technological delivery of pleasure to be satiating, ultimately even boring. Yet this is a daily experience for many of the jobless and retired.Time grows tedious when unstructured and many ultimately find the technological delivery of pleasure to be satiating, ultimately even boring.

Especially during the lengthy shutdown of “Covid times” all the worst aspects of our dealing with time came to the fore: both kids and grandparents, forcibly cut off from friends in school or senior centers, experienced loneliness. An extended vacation from school lost any appeal and the freedom from work of the retired grew stale. The “sheltering in place” and “social distancing” of the pandemic was especially stressful, depriving many of accustomed social interaction and obliging them to fall back unsatisfactorily on their personal “play” resources.

Yet for many others the pandemic heightened still another feature of modern life—overwork. For some, this was long hours of overtime (increasingly without bonus pay rates) in hospitals, Amazon “fulfillment centers” (where twenty minutes of rest on ten-hour workdays became common), and delivery services.


The “imbalance” of work and life across the day is the most noted form of this surprising scarcity of free time. Understandably, remedies for time imbalance are continually offered in a long-established American tradition—self-help books. Many are found on airport newsstands and publicized by the appearance of their authors on TV talk shows and online blogs. While scholars and human resources professionals measure the costs and benefits of flextime, special leaves, and other accommodations to the stresses and conflicts between work and family, these self-help books focus on the attitudes and actions of individual workers.

An edited survey of this approach is the Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Work-Life Balance, where experts encourage a “full life” made possible by thoughtful planning designed to reduce personal stress in the balancing act of career success and fulfilling family life. Such planning requires distinguishing between necessary and optional uses of time in both work and life and learning to be “present” in both essential periods.

Rather than address the actual problem of too many hours at work and too few at home, most “work-life balance” writers focus on training readers to manage work time more efficiently: reducing meetings, using remote work options, and setting limits to what can be expected at work. Matthew Kelly (among others) even calls the work-life balance a myth (denying there was a conflict and suggesting that the term suggests that “life” is more important than work). Instead, employees need to develop a “strategy, daily attention, self-awareness and discipline” to improve satisfaction in both work and life.

Inevitably, the work-life balance literature tends to devolve into heroic stories of achievers. A common theme is the profile of Chris O’Neil, a male executive, who rises at 5:30 a.m. to meditate before he drops the kids at school and then goes to the club for more exercise before a full day of focused business. Many of these books follow Tony Schwartz’s Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time (2003), with his stress on maximizing personal energy (with exercise) rather than attempting to increase time free from work. An interesting variation is the books geared for the female reader and the debate about whether life and work can be reconciled. A prominent group argues that career women must “lean in” to work and make “life” (or family) time secondary in order to prove their commitment to the job.

It sometimes is not obvious that these self-help writers have actually considered time in the work-life balance question. But time is a real, if often complex, problem: How much flextime is needed for family? Is giving more free time to workers with dependents really fair to those without such needs? These books seldom address the emergence of a “gig economy,” where flextime is less an issue and where unpredictable working hours are often more the problem.

Note that in 2015 only a quarter of Walmart workers had a regular work schedule. Work-life books generally ignore the problems of all but the professional elite. This literature also seldom addresses the right or value of free time for personally attained happiness, only conceding the need (perhaps) of family care. In any case, its main thrust is to maximize personal efficiency, turning work and life into modernized versions of the old time-and-motion studies of early twentieth-century efficiency experts.

Still, the fact that this literature exists at all points to the dilemma of many Americans—that they have little control over their time at work or home. The answer to this dilemma is mostly to adapt psychologically. And this “solution” suggests that the division between work and life is a personal choice, even though many wage earners have no choice in their working hours if they want a job. Even where there is a choice (as in taking on after-hours work), the laggard growth in income among the low waged has forced many to work more hours than the well paid. In sum, the self-help literature hardly provides answers to the elusive problem of time scarcity and the historic lag in the reduction of work time.

Beyond the pressing problem of free time are frustrations over how free time is used. Here too there is a lot of advice about causes and especially remedies for this disappointment in free-time culture. One thoughtful response is to focus on the dilemmas of our highly commercialized free-time culture, especially consumer spending based on competing with others (or emulation) and unpurposive accumulation or cluttering of goods. The answer here often is “minimalism,” a rejection of consumerism in free time.

A vast literature and popular documentaries offer guidance on living with less consumption: two dozen videos on the subject were available on Amazon Prime Video in the Spring of 2021. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus created websites, podcasts, and a Netflix documentary (Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things) to advocate eliminating the distraction of accumulated stuff (and working so much to amass it). These sources argue that fewer possessions can lead to more meaningful relationships with others and nature. If we were to eliminate clutter in closets, perhaps even move into a “tiny house” or take to the road in a minimalist van or truck, we would be “living more deliberately.” Our possessions would all serve an essential purpose.

Minimalists share much with ancient Christian ascetics, but the minimalists claim also to address modern issues: the false, ready-made identities in consumer goods created in advertising, the treadmill of fashion, and the absurdity of oversized houses that are scarcely used. Minimalists deny that we necessarily have to define ourselves and our relationships with others through goods. Rather, they argue, consumer goods impede self-realization and social and worldly engagement.The work-time dilemma is inextricably tied to the dilemma of free-time culture.

In support of this approach is Juliet Schor’s insight that consumer materialism short-circuits the need for an aesthetic relationship with things. Consumerism encourages a superficial engagement with consumer goods because so many are accumulated to keep up with the Joneses. Though a lot of this thinking is abstract, even mystical, minimalist advice can be very practical. For example, Project 333 counsels us to limit the number of clothes in our closets to thirty-three items for three months, carefully selected for personal meaning and utility. Minimalists argue that (with finesse and compromise) reduced consumerism can even become a family way of life, freeing children as well as parents from the irrational desires and demands foisted them by advertising and peer pressure.

Despite these insights and efforts to mainstream minimalism, inevitably this approach appeals to a minority. Its ideas are occasionally noted in the press, but with little social impact. Minimalist advice is often mocked as part of a geeky elitism that ignores the real world of the majority, who supposedly lack the security and self-confidence to find “meaning” without the latest fashion or gadget.

A second challenge to the culture of free time argues that happiness requires not just less consumption but a new set of free-time activities based on the findings of science. Especially important here is “positive psychology,” which is focused on creating conditions for “happiness” through purposive play and an “experience economy” based on encounters and activities rather than goods.

In this vein, Benjamin K. Hunnicutt argues that private enterprise can provide alternatives to consumer culture’s disappointments, built on an understanding of what experiences create happiness. This is part of a longer tradition, often associated with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his theory of the “flow,” where an activity (a game, sport, or even social interaction) is designed to challenge but not frustrate the “flow” of the participant, resulting in the individual’s playful immersion.

The experience economy draws on positive psychology to identify behaviors and experiences that meet complex and even contradictory needs (for the sensual, but also the cognitive; for the interactive, but also the autonomous). The object is to facilitate independence and self-initiation (rather than the typical passivity of consumerism) but also foster relatedness to others and new things. The experience economy aims to create mental and emotional complexity in a fearless encounter with the new and even the liminal.

But it also is supposed to bring intellectual and emotional integration (once called refinement). All this is to provide an alternative to the disappointment of passive, repetitive, and satiating free-time culture—and, presumably, it can be provided in the market. This happiness literature offers biologically based claims about how to create positive experiences and does not require a withdrawal from contemporary society (as the minimalists seem to).

This perspective offers promise, but it faces major obstacles. Capitalism seems not to be leading (on its own) to a “higher civilization,” as Simon Patten predicted in 1907, and the experience economy is still vague and unformed, with as yet few signs of realizing “liberating” and self-directed “experience” as the happiness literature advocates. This is not to denigrate these proposals or to reject efforts to clarify them but to recognize the enormity of the problem of change.

This rough-and-ready review of contemporary responses to the twin problems of time scarcity and cultural disappointment points to important aspects of these issues, but the responses themselves are also problematic. The advice literature for coping with work-life dilemmas and those around free-time culture comes up short. Advocates of a work-life balance underestimate the constraints and limited choices, especially of working people, often offering little more than advocating that we “lean in” to the competitive game.

More subtly, suggestions for improving free-time culture with spending constraints or more fulfilling “experiences” than are provided by modern consumerism sometimes underestimate the pressures and appeals of consumerism and the power of the market to commoditize even well-meaning “happiness” activities. Both paths for coping with the modern problems of time and culture address only part of the story. They ignore the fact that the work-time dilemma is inextricably tied to the dilemma of free-time culture. Some, but not all, analysts lack a historical understanding of the time and culture problem—the legacy of past ideas and social institutions as well as past expectations and disappointments.

I argue that our present quandary is rooted in past decisions and trends—political, social, cultural, and even technological—that shape and limit our present attitudes and choices. To understand and then address these dilemmas of time and culture, we must go back in history and search for the big picture. So, let us dig a little deeper.

Gary S. Cross is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Modern History in the Department of History at Pennsylvania State University and author of Freak Show Legacies and Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture.

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