Sunday, 23 November 2014

SLOW DOWN: How Our Impatience Is Ruining Us.



One of the most significant features engrained into almost every aspect of our modern society is undoubtedly our desire for speed. Modern lifestyle is at such a rapid pace that often we forget to see it that way- we all get fast food from McDonalds, spend extra to get extra fast One-Day delivery on our Amazon order, and we all want a fast Italian car. More than ever, speed really is of the essence in today's world, and it's unsurprising that this is the case.

A primary reason for this impatience is our lack of leisure time. One of capitalism's great claims is the reduced workload it puts on every individual who partakes in it, but a fascinating paper by Juliet B. Schor of MIT suggests that we, as an industrial capitalist workforce, actually have less leisure time than most of our medieval ancestors- who, according to former Oxford don James E. Thorold Rogers, rarely had a work day of more than 8 hours. Altogether, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up around 1 third of the year- something we today can only dream of.
Work dominates the lives of so many modern citizens- economic pressures are primarily the root of this. Americans work more than anybody else- also taking less leave, working longer days and retiring later than citizens of any other country in the world- even often taking up multiple jobs to help make ends meet. Perhaps this is an interesting statement for the the world's bastion of capitalism to put across.

Anyway, people have less leisure time in today's world and undoubtedly this is a reason for why we like to 'live life in the fast lane'- time is precious, and everyone wants to fit everything in to what time we have outside of work, be it the weekends or just a single lunch break.

This impatience has helped us in many ways- in particular with regards to the overall productivity of society. Over the past few decades economic productivity has drastically increased, one of the reasons for the rapid socio-economic modernisation that the world has seen in past decades. The extra productivity has gone into developing and producing revolutionary technology like computers, goods like clothes and food, allowing the supply to be there for more people around the world to be able to purchase such items, and thus enjoy an improved standard of living (though the effect of some consumer goods on standard of living is debatable). Capitalism may not be pretty, but ideas of Adam Smith's such as division of labour have certainly streamlined the economies of the world, in many cases leading to better lives for ordinary people.

But on the other hand, the damages of this rapid, impatient lifestyle are evident throughout our society.
Our impatience has been damaging to our health- fast food has unfortunately become the staple of the workers' diet, due to its sheer convenience. People don't want to spend their whole valuable lunch break sitting down at a table any more- McDonalds, Burger King and co. offer a far more convenient, grab and go system that lets you enter a store, place an order, grab your food and be out of there within 5 minutes. The drive-thru system means you don't even have to enter the store. Minimum fuss, minimum time lost, but pretty much maximum damage done to your health- the ingredients these companies use to provide such a quick and addictive experience for their customers are dangerous both in the short and long term for the health. Meanwhile, 'healthy' food, notorious for its supposedly  painful, long preparation time, goes ignored by many (though thankfully this trend has been reversing in recent years due to an increase in health-consciousness). Nevertheless, much of the damage has been done in the obesity rates of today's world, and is continuing to be done in how fast food remains among the world's most popular choices of food.
Further health concerns have grown along with the rise in popularity of cars in recent decades. Pretty much everyone has a car, and people who use an alternative form of transport in their daily commute are probably in a very small minority. Cars allow us to stay at home in the mornings longer, and get home sooner, without breaking a sweat- just like fast food, they are quick and easy, and our impatience and lack of time makes us particularly weak in fighting their attraction.

By no means is this to say that neither cars nor fast food have benefited society at all- the positive effects cars have had in bringing closer the world and in terms of convenience is undeniable, and fast food's affordability and convenience similarly cannot be ignored- but, the indulgent society that we can often be, when these have been used to the extremes they have proven to be catastrophic- just as an example, obesity has grown to the extent that it currently costs the world $2 trillion to deal with. And this is just the tip of the iceberg- further health problems such as stress, and social problems such as decreasing family interaction can also be attributed to the fast and busy lifestyle we live.

And our impatience does have direct economic implications on our lives. Combined with our materialist tendencies it has driven us to make many financially unwise decisions, on a daily basis. Just a small example one can witness on a daily basis at any newsagents is the lottery. In Britain, over 32 million people play the lottery every week, buying on average three tickets at a time. These people, driven by the prospect of becoming rich quick and easily, as a result overlook the fact that the chances of winning are just one in 14 million. The lottery is a small but recurrent drain on income- if those who bought lottery tickets maybe decided to invest the money spent on tickets in a savings fund they are far more likely to be better off economically.

The most significant example however comes in the shape of the borrowing phenomenon. Gone are the days of saving for many people- a 2012 survey found that 28% of Americans had no savings whatsoever, up from 24% the previous year and 49% had less than what would be necessary to cover three months of expenses, up from 46%. A significant reason for this lies in the increasing cost of living and the great stagnation of wages in America (see Seven Shocking Facts About Economic Inequality in the USA)- but considering that overall consumer spending actually increased in this period (see graph), the possibility that people are being less prudent with their finances is strong.

How is borrowing, and a lack of financial linked to our impatience? The link is clear- we no longer want to save up money for investments like a car or a house- we prefer to get them immediately, and credit allows us to do just this- transferring what is usually a greater cost to our future selves. It is pretty clear that paying for a car with cash is the best option- one significant reason being that the car itself is cheaper, with no need for extra interest payments to be made. But we don't like waiting, so we take the option of finance- spreading the (greater) cost of the car over multiple years, but gaining access to it now- you can buy a car worth £40k for example, even if you don't have £10k in your bank account. And there's nothing to stand in the way of our desire to do this- companies and banks are continuously offering seemingly attractive finance deals, making access to credit incredibly loose- affecting more significantly the housing market, where access to credit inflated the deadly housing bubble of the noughties- and we know where that led us. People borrowed more than they could afford to repay, and as a result when this was realised the bubble popped- creating one of the biggest global economic messes in the modern era.

The process of borrowing can lead to disastrous consequences- it can entail addiction, spiralling debt and subsequent homelessness. And the root of it, more often than not, is our desire to get that new car today- to get that new house as soon as possible, it is our impatience that leads us towards borrowing and putting our future at risk rather than being prudent and saving.

One cannot say that our own deficiencies can be easily resolved- as one could argue desire for speed is part of human nature- and nevertheless, the promotion of quick and easy credit by various financial institutions certainly has played a role also in our development of addiction to debt. Change will only come in the long term.

Old habits die hard, and the habit of borrowing, taking short term gains for long term losses is one that will certainly not go down without a fight.
Mohammad Lone Editor