Why Do Our Elites Fear Free Time?
The wealthy and influential fill their children's hours and minutes with activity and labor. Our attentions are scattered.
The preferences and pathologies of the upper class inevitably trickle down to the rest of society. And by the time the American elite’s neuroses wend their way downstream, they often look different. Witness how the boomer counterculture of the 1960s—initially a circumscribed dalliance in hedonism for the well-off—resulted, for the working class, in broken families and drug addiction. When “free love” went mainstream, out-of-wedlock childbirth soared; on the heels of pot came cocaine, meth, and now synthetic opioids. This is all the more reason why we should study—and take seriously—the current fad in America’s uppercrust when it comes to childrearing: overbooking.
As the product of a privileged background raising children among friends of a similar milieu and a history teacher to teens who by and large are also affluent, I have come to notice a disconcerting trend: the utter absence of free time among kids of the wealthy. Children’s days are planned almost down to the minute, oftentimes starting in kindergarten or even earlier. When I try to set up playdates for my 5 year old, I get this response: “We’re booked up every day of the week, but maybe we can play on the weekend.” What I recall in my childhood as a semi-spontaneous occurrence, free play, is now something that is planned weeks or months in advance.
The list of activities affluent youth are conscripted into would be vertiginous if it weren’t so predictable for those of us who hail from the “super zips,” as Charles Murray calls them, around Los Angeles, D.C., Chicago, New York, etc.: dance class or tennis one day, coding class the next, then piano, karate, or math tutoring and more.
Some readers of this piece may scoff, or imagine I am exaggerating. But this is how real people lead their lives—or better put, their children’s lives. Why? Why, I particularly ask myself, when, during Covid, so many of us paid lip service to the virtue of “slowing down” and “getting our priorities straight”? Why, when so many of us told ourselves and each other that our pre-Covid lives were replete with unnecessary busyness and that now we were going to change? Time at home with family and very deliberative social outings within the “Covid bubbles” we chose showed us, or so we said, that we were all overbooked and overbusy. The new normal, post-Covid, would look different. We would come back to our social lives, our professional lives, and our family lives, with greater intentionality and singularity of purpose. And yet for many of us, particularly the well off who have enough disposable income to endlessly occupy our children, the Covid-induced epiphany has yielded once again to overly busy business as usual.
What, then, are the explanations? What do our elites have to fear from free time? Let me venture a few answers:
Busyness and consumer capitalism feed into one another: To ponder God, or, for the secular among us, to ponder “life’s great questions,” requires time, focus, and devotion. Life’s greatest achievements—marriage, children, careers—all require contemplation. As we age, we are confronted with a problem that becomes ever more acute even if our well-meaning parents paper over it with activities: Do we face our own restlessness, or do we drown it in diversion? The scales of life, particularly here in the affluent West, have been tipped away from contemplation and towards action, as Carindal Sarah so eloquently laments in The Power of Silence. Whether you take the undeclared war on silence and stillness as a spiritual crisis, which detracts from the truth of the divine, or a secular humanist crisis, which militates against some other form of meaning, like social justice or climate change, the problem nonetheless remains: Our brains appear trapped in a perpetual loop of distractions. And instead of slaying the beast, we feed it.
Stillness and contemplation have become acts of heresy against our civic religion of consumerism. In this light, tutors and sports and activities all assault the contemplative act so that we may at once pump cash into the economy—ostensibly a good in its own right—AND mask the ontological shallowness of our own existence. Consumerism and schizophrenic presentism—busyness, buying and consuming—feed into and off of one another. If you stop to contemplate why you are expending as fast you can accumulate, the house of cards collapses.
Busyness is one of political liberalism’spathologies: As Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey point out in their recent book Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, classical liberalism was conceived in a cauldron of religious warfare, when attempts by the state to answer life’s “big questions” led to bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, such as that of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) in Montaigne’s France. Montaignean skepticism—the studied detachment from claims of universality and even from politics itself in pursuit of “immanent contentment,” the pleasure of the moment—was born in an era when strong religious, familial, and communal bonds were taken for granted, and fervor, not apathy, was the greatest danger to social harmony.
We are busy, the Storeys tell me in an email exchange, at least in part because “Montaignean skepticism…[conferred upon us moderns] a reluctance to rank the goods of human life… For it’s only when one is comfortable ranking that one is comfortable saying ‘no.’” As it turns out, when life’s biggest choices are left to us—such as how to live, how or whether to worship, what career path to take—we don’t always know what to do with that freedom. So we take that freedom and fill it with clutter.
Another price of liberty, as the Storeys tell us in their book vis-a-vis Toqueville, is perpetual status anxiety. In the pre-revolutionary feudal order, clergy, nobility, and commoners all knew where they stood—even if social mobility was possible in limited cases. In America, status is amorphous, malleable, and contingent above all upon work. If you’re not rising you’re falling; and even the rich enter the rat race because without meaningful work they would lose their status too. As the Storeys explain to me: “Who knows what line on the résumé might prove necessary for ascending to the next rung on whatever ladder we’re climbing? And so we try to do it all.”
Perhaps, then, the most urgent political problem of our day is one of the least ostensibly political in nature; and, by extension, one of the most seemingly innocuous acts the most overtly transgressive. To make time for free time—for our children and for ourselves—is at once an act of spiritual, cultural and politico-economic rebellion against a status quo that is designed to fulfill our emptiness with goods and achievements that were never meant to satisfy our deepest longings.
The Storeys have referred to this existential-philosophical retrenchment as “recovering the preconditions of liberalism’s success.” Busyness was not mandated by government fiat—it was embraced by sundry elites in academia, media, and the corporate world as a kind of specious form of rigor and merit. The only way to undo the now ingrained social custom of overbooking our kids is to stop rewarding it. A college counselor once told me that colleges would be much happier to see a kid with one unique passion he or she has pursued than one with a smorgasbord C.V. It’s time for the elites, and elite parents, to start acting like they believe this to be true. Or at least like they want it to be.
Busyness, not just idle hands, can be the devil’s playground: Bishop Robert Barron, citing the Latin root of the word devil, emphasizes its definition as that which “scatters…The great sign of the demonic is scattering,” Bishop Barrons explains, while “God is a great gathering force.” Against the liberal diktat never to mention God in the public square, I contend that our overly busy lives are not just superfluous, but spiritually, and therefore psychologically and societally, baleful. The scattering of our elites across the tennis courts and tutoring centers and dance studios of our cities is a force of atomization that undermines a sense of community or solidarity. As our elites go, so goes the nation. If left unchecked, this scattering power of the devil will only further divide and destroy us as a common people—as a community and as a nation.
The political right, and perhaps to a lesser degree the political left, decries the dearth of “social capital” among the working poor, and yet the well-educated in many ways are hardly better off. We treat our social commitments like a hedge fund, spreading investment (and risk) across a variety of activities, lest one not be enough. The logic of the free market has come to permeate those elements of life that were once outside its grasp. Free time, instead of being for contemplation—for reverence of God, for devotion to one, not many, hobbies—has become a commodity to invest in with the hopes of seeking a profitable return.
If we are to “recover the preconditions of liberalism’s success” as Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey so concisely put it, then we—as conservatives, and particularly religious conservatives—will have to speak more openly, and frankly, about the pre-liberal Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian values which tempered liberalism’s excesses in the past and are failing to do so now. Our elites ultimately fear free time because they are terrified to admit that they don’t have answers, other than relativistic platitudes, about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life.
One manifestation of existential angst among America’s elite managerial class is its undying love of lockdowns in the name of preserving lives lived behind pixels on a screen; another, less overt but equally insidious manifestation of the same, is the overeducated intelligentsia’s slavish devotion to being busy.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school.