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Not a Capital Idea

Jim Wasserman, 3:31 am ET

THE AMERICAN DREAM. Rags to riches. The self-made man—or woman.

Everyone growing up in the U.S. is told of these ideals. We are sharks who must keep moving to survive. The only acceptable direction is up. We do it for ourselves, believing happiness is just over the next hill of “more.” We do it for our family because providing is an act of caring.

If there’s a least-debated rule in economics, however, it’s that everything comes at a cost. This is especially true for the resources needed for production, whether of a thing or our own careers. The scarcest resource of all? Time. No more is being made. It’s the short tablecloth with which we try to cover everything we want done.

In racing to the top, people turn themselves into human capital, another resource to self-exploit. They drive themselves with demands for more productivity. If such demands were made by our boss, we would go on strike. But coming from ourselves, we forgo taking time off, will work when sick and sometimes even sacrifice time with family, all out of fear we’ll fall two steps behind the other guy, who’s also running exhausted and bleary-eyed.

I was waiting for my son to finish Sunday school one morning when another waiting dad, looking at his phone, yelled out an expletive. At 3 a.m. the night before, a competitor for a business account sent an email, so the dad was now saying he’d have to dedicate the rest of the day to responding.

I know this is a problem for the privileged—those lucky enough to be in semi-control—and I know entrepreneurship drives the economy. But at what cost? Isn’t quality of life worth more than stuff? When does “more” become “enough“?

During our three years in Spain, I remember how rush hour was at 2:30 p.m., when parents picked up their children from school and entire families then lunched together. There are few, if any, drive-through gulp-and-go eateries. If an American showed off his spacious house, with its amenities of grand living, chances are Spaniards would wish the American good luck with it, while they happily gathered at a café or park with neighbors who—on average—live in homes half the U.S. size.

We say that this is our choice, but is it? Virtually every executive I know can recount all the times they had no choice but to give up something, and that was usually family or mental-health time. Most retirees will tell you they don’t regret devoting more time to work, but they do regret the time they didn’t give to their family.

I’m not anti-entrepreneurship and certainly not anti-American. I’m pro-balance. My best family memories are not from when my parents were away working, but when we did the smallest things—together. My suggestion: We should all consider doing less for the ones we love and more with the ones we love.

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Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
1 month ago

Most of the “privileged” you’re referencing probably earned their “semi-control” through working/school rather than being “lucky enough”…IMO.

Last edited 1 month ago by Mik Cajon
Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
1 month ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

Seems like a healthy serving of both is usually on the menu.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
1 month ago

Last edited 1 month ago by Mik Cajon
Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor
1 month ago

It was interesting to read your comment about Americans and their spacious houses. I guess I just don’t get it either. A library branch I visit from time to time is in the neighborhood I grew up. Occasionally, I’ll drive around just to reminisce. I’m amazed to see the number of houses that have been torn down and mansions built in their place. The house I grew up in was about 1800 square feet and there were 5 kids. My office is near a public boat landing and I take walks around the landing and surrounding area. It seems the boats and the trucks needed to pull the trailers have become supersized as well. And it seems 2 outboard motors are the minimum with 3 and 4 pretty common. And I thought growing up with a friend who had a 17′ Boston Whaler with a 85hp Johnson motor was unbelievably lucky.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Taylor

Houses today on average are 1,000 sf larger than in the 1920s while family size has declined. I grew up in a one bedroom apartment with my parents and two sisters. Now I live in a condo that has same sq as the three story house I sold in 2018 built in 1929.

parkslope
parkslope
1 month ago

I agree with your criticism of our workaholic culture. However, your article seems to suggest that we shouldn’t strive to build our human capital and that our workaholic behaviors are independent of workplace cultures that expect us to work long hours.

One of the few benefits of the pandemic is that many Americans are reassessing work and opting for jobs that provide them with more time for their lives away from work. In fact, many are building new human capital that will allow them to succeed in jobs with a better balance of work and family. 🙂

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
1 month ago
Reply to  parkslope

I agree. Most people (the ones without ownership equity of the business) wanted to put in so much time. I see in many of the younger skilled set (those with negotiating power) now demanding more balance from companies, even some who say that the amount of in-office hours demanded could be a deal breaker. Hopefully, this group’s leveraging of demand for their job talents will change the entire balance. I read already that when Ford let their office staff work from home, they then had to give alternative concessions to assembly line workers who had to still come in for work.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago

Valid points all and it would be great to have a real balance. I was one of those people. I worked a little on every vacation, I worked in some way virtually seven days a week, occasionally 24 hours straight.

The thing is, I enjoyed my work which involved working with employees and unions and my family knew it.

But we nearly always had a family dinner, my wife and I were at every band competition for our four children, every concert, every play and awards ceremony.

Today the pendulum has swung another way. I look at my children and their family life is controlled by sports. Every grandchild participates in multiple sports, their lives are driven by tournaments, practices and games. Many times parents are running in different directions with different kids.. Nobody says, enough already. Vacations are cut short because practice starts.

Do the children enjoy it all or are they under pressure. I’m not sure.

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
1 month ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I absolutely agree, Richard. I think it’s a mistake to equate watching one’s child do an activity with “interacting” with one’s child (playing WITH them, talking WITH them, etc.). I think the overscheduling of children is a problem. It not only takes away from interaction, it sends a message that one should go wide (do a lot) rather than deep (do fewer things but well). Finally, as an educator, I saw that kids with all-structured time kept looking to supervising adults for what to do next, rather than figuring it out on their own. We undervalue time bored with family and friends.

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