Why we feel ‘overwhelmed’


Oliver Burkeman, who’s got a series on the topic for BBC Radio 4, explores why we’ve got a society full of people who feel overwhelmed by life:

You might assume the explanation was straightforward: we feel so much busier these days because we’ve got so much more to do. But you’d be wrong. The total time people are working – whether paid or otherwise – has not increased in Europe or North America in recent decades. Modern parents who worry they’re spending insufficient time with their children spend significantly more of it than those in generations past. “The headline changes over the last 50 years are that women do a whole lot less unpaid work, and a whole lot more paid work, and men do quite a bit less paid work, and a whole lot more unpaid work,” says Jonathan Gershuny, of the Centre for Time Use Research at Oxford University. But “the total amounts of work are pretty much exactly the same.” What’s more, the data also shows that the people who say they’re the busiest generally aren’t.

As I was discussing with another parent today when picking up my son from Cub Scout camp, the problem is that we can’t leave work behind any more. As we’re all doing ‘knowledge’ work, it’s all around us. The inbox is never-ending, and there’s always things you could be doing. So the nature of our work is different, we can’t leave it behind.

There’s another thing at play here, though. Through social networking we now life (and especially parenting) has devolved into a competitive sport. It’s not just keeping up with the Joneses, but pretending your life is some kind of version of the Kardashians. We keep our ‘bloopers’ to ourselves, but share the highlights reel far and wide.

These two things: a lack of imposed work/life boundary, and individualism in society, are, to my mind, destructive of community. I was in France with my family over the summer, and everywhere closes down on a Sunday — just as it used to in England when I was younger. I couldn’t help but think this was a good thing.

When it comes to the atomisation of society, the only thing that can save us is collective action and co-operation. We’re living in the world envisioned by Guy Debord in his Society of the Spectacle, written almost 50 years ago:

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

Later in the book, of course, Debord enjoins us to ‘never work’. So there’s that. But seriously, we should be working less, living more, and working with one another create the society that would pass the test of a Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’. Sadly, the older I get the more this seems like a distant possibility.

Image via Nomad Pictures