Do You Live for Today or Prepare for Tomorrow? Time Allocation Across Our Lifetime

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Do you feel pressed for time? Too often, we blame ourselves for not having enough free time to exercise, spend time with our families, or relax.

However, the truth is that it isn’t always up to us.

In a recent paper​1​, political theorist Malte Jauch, argues that the way we spend our time—including our free time—is heavily influenced by the type of society we live in.

That’s because some societies, like Japan, encourage their citizens to work harder now and postpone free time until retirement. In contrast, other cultures like the Netherlands encourage their citizens to enjoy free time now but retire a bit later.

Japan vs. the Netherlands

Take the example of Japan. The Japanese government encourages citizens to work hard and enjoy free time only until old age. One way the government does this is by giving higher wages to people who don’t interrupt their careers and attractive pensions for those who retire early.

Did you know? Many convenience stores in Japan sell cheap shirts and ties because some employees work so late that they have no time to go home and change.

The Netherlands, on the other hand, has a very different approach. For example, workers have the right to ask employers to reduce work hours, and employers cannot refuse without a valid, justified reason. The legal age of retirement in the Netherlands is also one of the highest in the world.

Did you know? The Dutch government prohibits discrimination based on work hours. (Source: Government.nl)

Which approach is best for you?

So which country’s time management policy is better? To answer this question, Malte Jauch asks, “what would a prudent, reasonable person do?”

Imagine you’re in your twenties and the government is not interfering in your time management choices. You could go on a holiday for the whole summer every year, or you could work hard and save lots of money to retire early.

What would you do?

According to Jauch, a prudent decision-maker wouldn’t make one stage of their life nicer if that meant making the rest of their life worse. For instance, if someone were to enjoy too much free time in their twenties and thirties, they might not have the opportunity to save enough money to retire comfortably.

On the other hand, a prudent decision-maker is also aware that we never know what might happen in the future. Who knows whether we’ll be healthy enough, or even alive, to enjoy leisure time in retirement. If we’re too sick to enjoy our retirement, then all those years of hard work and leisure time deprivation would have been for nothing. And even if we are alive and healthy, who’s to say that the people we enjoy spending leisure time will be? In practice, many people don’t give too much thought to this because the finitude of life isn’t something we concern ourselves with every day.

Your sort live as if you’re going to live forever, your own human frailty never enters your head, you don’t keep an eye on how much time has passed already.

Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

The prudent decision-maker, then, would not postpone their whole life to the end but rather spread out their leisure time as much as possible. In other words, the best option would perhaps be to seize as much leisure time as you can without hurting your financial wellbeing.

The problem, as Jauch points out, is that very often we’re not in the same position as that of the prudent decision-maker: governments can and do interfere in our time management choices. The country you live in can make a big difference in how you spend your time.

Public policies in Sweden, for example, are such that people get nine extra hours of leisure time a week compared to people in France—it’s like having Monday off every week​2​.

But thankfully, countries and companies are moving toward more flexibility. Italy has introduced legislation that gives employees the right to ignore work-related emails and phone calls outside of working hours; more companies are adopting a 4-day workweek; and remote work is on the rise.

How you can take control of your time

Just because corporate and public policies are changing doesn’t mean social norms are changing as well. Very often, the main reason people don’t take advantage of their company’s work-life balance policies is that they fear they’ll be seen as less committed to their job​3​.

So, what can you do to take control of your time?

  1. Think long-term (you won’t regret leisure). Studies show that choosing work over leisure now makes people feel good about themselves. In the long term, however, people tend to regret those choices and wish they had spent more time in leisure instead​4​. This phenomenon occurs mainly when people reflect on what they’ve missed out on in life by prioritizing work. So whenever you feel guilty for choosing leisure over work, ask yourself if that’s a decision you’ll likely regret five years from now.
  2. Talk to your employer. If you’re feeling overworked, talk to your boss about it. You might be able to come up with a plan that allows you to have more free time without hurting your work productivity. If your employer needs some convincing, research shows that workplace policies that give you more free time, flexibility, and work-life balance boost your job satisfaction more than a 79% salary bump!​5​
  3. Value time over money. One of the reasons people still work hard today despite advances in productivity is because they want to buy more and better stuff to keep up with the Joneses​6​. Buying that new car requires money, and making money requires a job, which requires long work hours. In other words, people choose to make more money over having more time. Yet studies consistently show that people who choose time over money are happier, even when controlling for the money or time they already have​7​. In practice, valuing time over money means making smart financial decisions and, as much as possible, using money to buy time. For example, paying extra for grocery delivery, cleaning services, babysitters, robot vacuums, and wash’n’fold services can go a long way in giving you more free time.

Time management is not just about mundane productivity. What you do with your time now, and every day, week, and month of your life, can have a long-term impact on your free time, happiness, and wellbeing.

The decisions that governments, companies, and other institutions make today will affect how you manage your time tomorrow. So be mindful of your choices: they add up to equal the big picture of your life.

References (click to expand)

  1. 1.
    Jauch M. Free Time Across the Life Course. Political Studies. Published online April 9, 2021:003232172110007. doi:10.1177/00323217211000733
  2. 2.
    MAHMUD RICE J, GOODIN RE, PARPO A. The Temporal Welfare State: A Crossnational Comparison. J Pub Pol. Published online October 30, 2006:195-228. doi:10.1017/s0143814x06000523
  3. 3.
    Bourdeau S, Ollier-Malaterre A, Houlfort N. Not All Work-Life Policies Are Created Equal: Career Consequences of Using Enabling Versus Enclosing Work-Life Policies. AMR. Published online January 2019:172-193. doi:10.5465/amr.2016.0429
  4. 4.
    Kivetz R, Keinan A. Repenting Hyperopia: An Analysis of Self-Control Regrets. J Consum Res. Published online September 2006:273-282. doi:10.1086/506308
  5. 5.
    Whillans AV. Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. Havard Business Review Press; 2020.
  6. 6.
    Suzman J. Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. Penguin; 2021.
  7. 7.
    Hershfield HE, Mogilner C, Barnea U. People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online June 23, 2016:697-706. doi:10.1177/1948550616649239
Brad Aeon
Brad Aeon

Brad Aeon is an Assistant Professor at the School of Management Sciences at University of Quebec in Montreal. He conducts research on the sociology, history, and philosophy of time management. His studies focus on how people can achieve what matters to them while reducing stress and living more meaningful lives.