Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Staffan Linder and the Harried Leisure Class

Staffan Linder is a Swedish Economist. His book, "The Harried Leisure Class", has the power to change the way you view the world in the same way as "The Selfish Gene". It's one of those life-altering premises, not a major earth-shattering new theory like evolution, but a new way of looking at it. As the selfish gene is to biology, The Harried Leisure class is to economics.
The premise is simple. As we all should know, one of the key inputs in any economic input is labor. Labor itself consists of the time one spends on a job, the expertise that goes into the work, and several other factors. Linder says that as one's wage and productivity rises, the value of one's time consequently rises. This leads one to expect to get more value from all of one's time, including one's free time. The result, according to Linder, is that people spend their leisure time in more and more intense, hurried, "efficient" leisure activities. This explains the decline in popularity of baseball, whittling on the porch, and anything involving hours of practice (i.e. almost anything worth doing). Thus leisure becomes less about relaxing and more about getting relaxing stuff done.
But it doesn't stop there. It answers a question I've long wondered about. Why do people like to buy things that look worn and old? What's so wonderful about jeans with holes in them? Linder's idea explains it all. People are too busy to put the holes in the jeans themselves through good honest mucking about under a car or out in a field, so they buy the jeans pre-worn:

But the concept just goes rolling everywhere, like the selfish gene, it's got legs. Why do so many people (like my sister-in-law) spend so much money on educational toys for infants when research shows that spending quality time with your child is more effective than all the fancy knickknacks in the world? Because the expensive toys (and my sister-in-law has spent at least $1000 on them and her son isn't 2 yet) are actually cheaper than her time. Sick world, huh? And why do so many housewives here in Korea send their kids to cram schools all day and still spend every waking hour fretting and kvetching over their children's educations? Because all that time, otherwise spent warming the couch, is almost worthless (relative to any other activity that those woman could do instead, short of actually getting a job).
And here's where it hits me personally. I work in the burgeoning English as a Never-to-be-learned Language (ENL) sector in Korea, teaching people who are going about it ass backwards, throwing money (on me)and time (on memorizing lists of things) at a problem (learning English) that can really only be solved by technique (actually exposing oneself to English in a meaningful way) and time (spent constructively). Although I have a steady job, I chose it for it's smack-in-themiddle-of-the-day schedule, which allows me to work much more lucrative private lessons in the morning and night. Right now my schedule every day is either 6:30am -9pm or 8:15am-10pm. I spend 3 hours a day riding the bus all over the place. All my time is for sale. Every moment of it. For the last 4 months every Monday morning I had a 2 hour break when I would go to Starbucks between jobs and drink the world's most expensive Starbucks (in Korea, a grande latte is $5). Well someone bought that. If you have the money and the inkling, you can buy the two remaining holes in my schedule, Wednesday and Friday Mornings, 10-12. If someone goes and buys them up them I have no idea when I will go to the gym. But needless to say, that being my gym time, I will expect an extra $5/hour to compensate for the loss.
So last week when I heard about this person who wanted to buy my coffee break, I was faced with a question I presume is very common to geishas, massueses and psychiatrists: How much is that hour of my life every week worth? Unfortunately, I know for a fact that anyone willing to buy my time is willing to pay way more than it's worth to me. So every time I get a new job, it's like losing an auction for my life. Should I push for $45, or stick with a standard $40? In fact, I got $50, quite a steal. That's another thing that you can learn from Adam Smith: You are most likely to make a big profit in an industry in which the product is scarce and the actual price is not well-known to non-experts.
Anyway, it's not all roses: the class is a one on one with a girl who speaks almost no English and, I would say, has almost no chance of benefitting from the class. In other words, she won't be learning English any time soon. I could see it in her eyes, she doesn't have the drive, the heart or the head for it. And, back to Linder, I could also see in her eyes that she was the type that was more willing to throw money than time at such a pursuit. I mean, a $50/hour English tutor would have to be a lot better than a $40/hour one, right?



Want more time with parents and children with family? Can operate as long as the trivial time
Welcome to learn a simple understanding of free market
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