A friend told me a tale today. He’s losing track of the days. He’s worked until midnight every night for the last week. Working until midnight isn’t new, but there are marathon sprints that are epic. He’s not alone. Maybe it is a sign that business is increasing and eventually the business will provide enough profit to take a vacation to recuperate, and then another vacation to enjoy. Maybe it is a sign of the new normal where the main way to make more money is to spend more of your life working. Check back in about five years to see which way it went. In the meantime, as I apologize to my friends for not socializing as much I usually receive the same apology. Somehow, sometime, we’ll find the time.
I am not an absolutist. Yes, there are plenty of people lounging in Langley’s sidewalk coffeeshops and cafes (a couple of nouns that should be redundant, but aren’t – which explains the problem of learning English). There are millions of people with regular jobs, discretionary income, and paid time off. Paid time off is a concept so foreign to some entrepreneurs that it’s received with laughter by small business owners and freelancers. Cruise ships cruise by in my view of the Sound. Sometimes their traffic is thick enough to look like three massive dragsters vying to somehow pass in the shipping lanes. How much horsepower is devoted to getting to the destination one hour earlier? They’re filled with people with leisure time. Good. I’m a fan of leisure. Someday I hope to have some, too.
The folks I’m talking about are the ones that were struggling when The Great Recession hit. Costs were cut back. Employees let go. Product lines and service options were restricted, but highly negotiable to anyone interested in helping pay the bills. Now, businesses are busier than ever, but profits have yet to arrive. They built momentum over the last few years, and they’re going to keep pushing until business rolls a bit freer.
Unemployment is down to about 6%. That’s a good move considering a few years ago. Millions more have jobs now than then. Wages, however, aren’t moving. Total wages earned is improving, but the wage rate is nearly constant. It turns out that much of the population is making more money, but only by working more hours. Good news for paying the bills is also less time left for living. While unemployment is down, employment participation is not. Employment participation is at about 67%. The way the numbers begin to add up requires an insight into the people who aren’t employed, but who aren’t counted as unemployed. So many of them either lost their part-time jobs or gave up trying that they weren’t counted against unemployment.
So, unless you’re a major corporation, profits and wages aren’t rising, and the best way to make progress is to trade more of your life for the same wages. This might be temporary.
Discussions about wealth and income inequality can quickly quote ideological extremes of libertarian self-reliance versus socialist common support. A warning sign that ideologies are ruling the discourse is when words crowd out data, when positions are defended or attacked rather than solutions being sought. Maybe this bit of freneticism is temporary, like the last chaotic winds of winter just as seedlings are finding the sun and rain.
Personal finance is personal because every person has to make choices based on their situation, resources, and constraints. When millions of people are making the same choices because they are in similar situations with similar resources and similar constraints, the problem isn’t personal and is systemic.
With this many people working longer hours, and some running up until midnight, there is a limit to their growth. Aside from the health issues of working too hard for too long, advice from pundits and politicians to simply work harder and longer ignores the fact that many people are already working as long and as hard as they possibly can. If a person works until midnight, then works past it, they didn’t extend the day. The day is still only 24 hours. They’re working the next day and losing sleep. Working that long and hard isn’t sustainable for the person, and people working that long and hard isn’t sustainable for the society.
Billionaires are tending to agree. The millions of struggling people have enough votes to change the situation, but don’t have the power to change the ballots. A person working until midnight has a tough time collecting signatures for ballot measures after they get off shift. A person outside a political party has higher hurdles. Billionaires have very few votes, but they have the power. Billionaires are not clones. Some will think that more is never enough; but many are watching the growing inequalities in wealth and income, the stagnation of economies, and general civic unrest. They are becoming advocates for changing the system. Stereotypes fail and fall: many people in poverty work hard, don’t abuse the system, and can’t get past financial hurdles like debt; many people with wealth realize they have more than enough, are accumulating it passively and in some cases almost accidentally, and realize that every time great disparities are allowed to grow societies fall. Yes, there are abusers at both ends of the spectrum, but they are anecdotal aberrations, not constructive examples.
Personal finance is personal, and most of the discussions about changes may work generally, eventually. I am a short term realist and a long term idealist, a short term pessimist and a long term optimist. Whether the economy, government policy, social attitudes, or some common consciousness enact solutions, all of us have to deal with the short term problems of paying bills and finding time for each other.
I’m almost paying all of my bills. That’s a great improvement. I’m hardly visiting friends at all. That’s a great cost. I make time for dancing, and may make time for hiking (really, honestly, I’ll get back into the mountains), but I’ve spent enough nights working until 9pm or later, and starting over with less than eight hours of sleep. Four years of this and I know I have to find another way because I can’t do this for four more years (and, really, if you got political with “four more years” you’re missing the reality). Governmental policies are important, but personal choices are more important. Money is precious when you don’t have enough, but time is more precious. I’ll continue to try to find more money, but after four years, it’s time I spent more time finding more time.