I, like every red-blooded American male (I assume), frequently cry when I finish watching a competitive baking series.
I can’t quite explain why. As far as I can tell, people have been combining eggs, flour, water and sugar for many a century and rarely does it elicit sobbing from those who witnessed the miracle of confection. (Unless food poisoning is somehow also involved.)
But when they hand over the ceremonial cake plate, or the victory check, or the diamond egg timer or whatever, the water works inevitably commence. Perhaps they are tears of joy having seen a competitor achieve a lifelong dream, like being pulled out of a job as a sanitation worker to show off his or her alacrity at choux pastry. Or maybe they are tears of appreciation for having made me forget about the actual world for just long enough to prevent me from hurling myself off the roof of a nearby Target.
But mostly, I think, the tears come from realizing I just torched ten hours of my life that I will never recoup.
While the monetary cost of watching, for instance, The Great British Baking Show is nominal, the time it costs us - especially for people like me who can no longer see their salad days with the Hubble Telescope - is invaluable. (Side note - I only used “salad days” because it is a term that makes no sense - whose best days involved leafy greens?)
It is this replacement of monetary currency versus time currency that has me wondering which one is now actually more valuable. Even if you’re still a young person, you can remember the days of having to entertain yourself by leaving your house and paying ten bucks to see a movie. Or going to a music store to flip through CDs and records, only to feel judged by the employee at the register when they see you have bought two Macklemore albums. Or wandering through a Barnes and Noble, cranking your neck to the side to be able to read the books lining the shelves.
All of this took real money. You’d go to work every day hoping to make enough expendable income to take in your favorite movies, or sporting events, or CDs, or books.
But in the streaming era, this has all flipped. You can now watch virtually every movie ever made for a monthly subscription that’s less than one trip to a theater. History’s entire music library is in your pocket if you have Apple Music or Spotify, both of which cost about as much as one CD. You can watch every sporting event on a reasonably-priced large screen TV. There are even book services where you can read all the e-books you want for a monthly fee.
So, unlike the centuries before now, the problem now isn’t “how am I going to pay for all this stuff?” The problem is, “where am I going to find the time for all this stuff?”
And in that way, time has become the new currency. And it’s a currency we can’t make more of.
As economics books tell you, the actual value of your time is equal to the best way you could possibly be using that time. I read this probably 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I totally buy it. If I wasn’t lying on my couch covered in Cheeto dust watching “Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” I doubt I would be learning surgical procedures to help children in an impoverished country. I feel like maybe this is a trick by economists to make everyone else feel terrible about their lives, which they consider the optimal use of their time.
Nonetheless, there are still those who urge people to calculate what their actual time is worth. The internet is replete with calculators allowing you to do just that - so when you stare at your phone for a half hour trying to figure out the day’s Wordle, you can ascribe a cash value to that endeavor.
Many of these calculators suggest using your actual hourly salary to determine your worth, which is problematic on a few levels. For one, I would like to think my time as a human is “worth” just as much as Jeff Bezos’, even if I don’t spend it gallivanting around space in a penis-shaped rocket.
Furthermore, why would the value of my time off the clock be the same as my time on it? What if I actually did spend my free time helping people find lost pets and reading detective novels to elderly people in nursing homes? (And not writing Substacks.) Wouldn’t that make my “me” time more valuable?
Of course, the idea that time is its own type of currency isn’t new. (I remember there being an old saying about time being money, but I wish I could remember it.)
Back in 1827, a friendly anarchist named Josiah Warren started the Cincinnati Time Store, where customers purchased goods and services not with monetary currency, but by committing themselves to helping someone else for a set period of time. It only lasted until 1830, with Warren declaring it a success - others aren’t so sure, with some modern economists using time currency as an example of how cryptocurrencies are a bubble that won’t last.
The concept of time as money has also historically been attractive to socialists, as it is a way of leveling out personal wealth. We all theoretically have the same number of hours in a day, so if time is used as currency, we all have the same buying power.
But today’s main struggles deal with how one allots his or her time just as much as how one makes a living to spend that time doing what they want. Time is something we can’t make more of - ask anyone if they could use cash to buy more of it, and almost every non-vampire would say yes.
Maybe we don’t need to assign a cash value to every minute of the day, but we should all be more cognizant of what our activities cost us. There’s a reason we use the term “spending time” - it is an asset with tremendous value, and once it’s gone, nobody can give it back to us. There is no return policy, unless you sign a deal with the Devil to be able to play the blues guitar exceptionally well.
Maybe this is just a way for me to justify changes I already need to make. For instance, I have always viewed social media as an evil because of how people treated others on Twitter and Facebook - now I am going to view it more as a thief trying to steal my time from me, just as a mugger is stealing my benjamins.
And this applies to all the new, cheap, entertainment options at my disposal. The cost-saving convenience of streaming may be saving me money, but I am hemorrhaging valuable time that I can never get back. (Just ask my children, “you over there,” and “what’s his name.”)
Is it awesome that I can sit down and relive Betty White’s career on The Golden Girls all at once for a streaming service that costs 10 bucks a month? Of course it is. But the hours spent doing it will make me a much poorer man.
As part of my “spending my time more wisely” project, I am trying to get my 10-year old daughter into rock music. Consequently, I am exposing her to my list of “women who shred,” which begins with Bethany Cosentino of the band Best Coast. (I am aware it is now frowned upon to segregate rockers by gender - female artists bristle at being categorized as “lady rockers” - but I thought my daughter might respond better to someone who looks like her more than, say, James Hetfield.)
There has to balance. I spent plenty of time trying to do my best in a federal civil service job. Did those years matter? I’m still wondering if the ultra-commute, missed social interaction, and stress were worth it.