Was there ever such a time as this? The pace of life is relentlessly accelerating: change happens faster and faster, we are busier than ever before, and ordinary human warmth is crowded out in the rush. Indeed, there was such a time: it was the late 19th century, during which many writers complained about the unprecedented hurry of the modern age.
A few decades earlier, the telegraph marked a change in the speed of communication that dwarfs anything observed in our lifetimes. In our supposedly accelerationist epoch, smartphones and the major online monopolies have been around for more than a decade, and much trumpeted “innovation” has consisted of attempts to rebrand taxi or hotel businesses as technological breakthroughs. Yet books and articles constantly tell us that the world really is speeding up. What is the truth?
It would be handy to have a reliable source of evidence about what people actually spend their time doing, and how they feel about it. That is precisely what the Centre for Time Use Research at University College London has supplied. In 2014-15, a randomly selected group of 8,000 people were asked to fill in time-use diaries, recording what they did as they went along at 10-minute intervals over a full day. Researchers collected 16,000 such “diary days”, and this book is a fascinating analysis of the results.
If indeed the world is speeding up, it’s not apparent in individuals’ daily lives. Compared with data from 2000, lead researchers Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan report, overall there is “little evidence for any speed-up in the tempo of daily activities”. Indeed, substantially fewer people said they “always felt rushed” in 2015 than they did in 2000. The authors point out wryly that complaining about being busy is a signal of status; they also observe: “When we think about our own lack of time, we are actually making a comparison with earlier stages of our own lives” – when we had fewer obligations – “while the true comparison would be with comparable stages of the life-course of older generations”.
The really interesting finding here, though, is that of a gendered time inequality rather than the “folk narrative” of an inequality between historical eras. Women more often reported “always feeling rushed” than men. Which is not surprising since they still do more unpaid work (household chores and childcare) than men do. So the high-flying male executive’s humblebrag that he is busier than his peers at any previous moment in history tends to overshadow the asymmetry of stress long suffered by the female half of the population.
The book contains many other nuggets, many of which turn on the markedly different results obtained from simple questionnaires versus time-use diaries. If you ask people how much exercise they do regularly, for example, they are liable to overstate – by up to a factor of two – the truth as recorded in a diary. And this has implications for public policy. Official guidance of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times a week is based on the observed outcomes for people who say they do that much – but they almost certainly don’t. Changing the advice to a more realistic three times a week would seem more achievable to many, and so might benefit public health overall.
Another thing that hasn’t changed as much as we are told, it turns out, is rest: a smartphone-driven, 24/7 lifestyle is not robbing us of our sleep; indeed we generally sleep a bit more, on average, than a few decades ago. The centrality of sleep to human happiness, though, is clear in the survey results. The only activity people report enjoying more than sleeping is going to a pub or restaurant, or playing with children. The peculiar thing about this is that, of course, one cannot quite enjoy sleeping per se because one is not aware of the activity. What we enjoy is going to sleep, and maybe (or so some people claim) waking up feeling well rested.
Days, Philip Larkin wrote, are “to be happy in”. After all: “Where else can we live but days?” That sleeping nonetheless is universally rated as one of the most pleasurable possible activities might tell a more baleful story about modern life than these researchers notice. The modern marketisation of sleep in the form of sleep-tracking technology and online mattress companies, among other things, tells us that we should value sleep because it improves “productivity”. But it seems more likely that sleep is one of the things we most enjoy about our existence because it represents the regular chance to turn it off.
• What We Really Do All Day: Insights from the Centre for Time Use Research by Jonathn Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan is published by Pelican (RRP £9.99) To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.