Living Economics

The Harried Leisure Class
Linder, S. B.
Consumers in rich countries have become harried in their futile attempt to increase the productivity of their non-work time.

The cardinal principle of optimal allocation of scarce resources is that the yield from different uses of the same scarce resources must be equal at the margin. Time is a classic example of a scarce resource. Because of sustained economic growth, the productivity of work time has substantially increased. To achieve optimal allocation of time, the yield of non-work time must be increased to match work time productivity. Since some of the non-work time is devoted to leisure activities, our leisure has thus become harried in our attempt to increase its productivity.

To increase the productivity of leisure time, we tend to prefer activities whose productivity can be easily increased with more goods that can now be afforded with our higher income. Just as workers become more productive by working with more tools and capital equipment, consumers get more out of their leisure time when more gadgets are used per time unit. Thus, consumers may buy more expensive models, engage in simultaneous consumption or successive consumption of many different goods.

On the other hand, activities whose productivity is unlikely to increase with higher gadget-intensity are less preferred. We can think of long courtship, time-consuming home cooking, and monogamous dating. Purely maintenance activities, whether relating to appliances or our bodies, are similarly neglected since they don't contribute to our pleasure. Instead, we replace perfectly repairable items with new items and take drugs or undergo surgical procedures to save the trouble of eating and exercising properly.

The modern leisure class has also become more harried inadvertently. In their haste to buy gadgets to increase the yield of their leisure time, they are often blind to the maintenance requirement of many goods. For example, many who have acquired a swimming pool have been unhappily surprised to find themselves obliged to cleaning it that they have little time to swim in it. Similarly, they may have over-committed themselves to recognition-enhancing activities that tend to overrun estimated time (Hirschman).

  • Linder, S. B. 1970. "The Acceleration of Consumption," The Harried Leisure Class. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Hirschman, A. O. 1973. "An Alternative Explanation of Contemporary Harriedness," Quarterly Journal of Economics. November: 634-637.
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