Our need for speed has become stronger, more pervasive, and harder to escape because today we can pursue more options—and we can pursue more options because our culture has flourished. According to Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, our progress, our success, has made our time increasingly valuable. With every passing year, our minutes become more precious and more costly. “Since 1955, the average American’s income after inflation has tripled . . . [while] life expectancy has gone up by roughly 10 percent.” So the total amount of living we can afford has tripled, while the total amount of time we have to live has increased only slightly. Therefore, we have more at stake with each minute we spend. And that has left us with an increased need for speed.
According to Hamermesh, as long as our culture continues to flourish, the need for speed will continue to become stronger, more pervasive, and harder to escape. It’s a simple issue of supply and demand. There is an increased demand for time, but a virtually static supply of it. And the solution to this conflict is speed: if we cannot add more hours to the day, and the number of years in a lifetime is increasing only slightly, we have to move faster if we are to do everything we want to—and can—do.
Think about two kids at a state fair. Both of them have an hour to see what they want to see and do what they want to do. One child has five dollars. He has enough money to do one thing, so he has an important choice to make. Should he go on his favorite ride or buy his favorite treat? Which will provide more pleasure, the Ferris wheel or the caramel apple? Regardless of what he chooses, an hour is more than enough time to do what he can afford to do.
The second child has 20 dollars—but still only an hour to spend it. She wants a caramel apple, a turkey leg, a bag of saltwater taffy, a ride on the Ferris wheel, and a ride on the Loop-the-Loop. She can afford them, but is there enough time? She can’t spend too much time doing any one thing, or she’ll give up the chance to do something else. A long line at the cotton candy booth could mean she misses out on the Ferris wheel. In order for her to do everything she wants to do, everything she has the potential to do, the second child has to look for ways to speed up. She has to make the most of every moment. Her need for speed is greater than the first child’s.
Like Isabella, the average American has an acute need for speed because we have the ability to pursue more options than ever before. And the more we can do, the more we want to do. Because we have finite lives and infinite imaginations, our demand for speed goes up in relation to what we have the potential to achieve. We want to do big things, meaningful things, everything we dream of. We want the extensive education, the high-powered career, the tight-knit family, the exciting social circles, the glamorous travel, the relaxed, introspective time for ourselves, and the ability to give back to our global community. And how much time do we have to cram all that into? Seventy years? Eighty? To do all that we want to do, to live as much as we want to live, we need speed—it’s the only way to get more time, more life.
It’s true that for some people, more does not necessarily mean better. Some are perfectly content not doing everything within their reach. They choose to limit the number of experiences they pursue—and they feel happier in doing so. There is even evidence to support the notion that more does not mean happier.
But, for better or for worse, if given the choice of doing less or doing more, most people feeling the effects of the Age of Speed choose more—more opportunities, more wealth, more connection to more people, more living. In fact, a 2006 poll revealed that only 26% of people claiming to be time starved would choose having fewer things to do over having more time to do all the things they currently do. We want as much out of life as we can get.
Reprinted with permission from The Age of Speed by Vince Poscente, Bard Press, Sept. 2007