The 24-Hour Limit

In the days of early man, it was easy to keep up with technology and the content it produced: You could gawk at the new cave paintings, admire the latest advances in grunting, and still make it into bed when the sun went down. In more recent years, man’s ability to produce content has become highly elastic. Since there are still just 24 hours in the day, though, man’s capacity for consuming content is mostly inelastic. The result is a disequilibrium between what we can crank out and what we can take in. Often overlooked, time is a stubbornly limiting factor on our involvement in the new-media age.

For marketers and other purveyors of pop culture, this reality is masked by their usual obsession with teens and twentysomethings—the people who (for now) do have surplus time. Young folks are the OPEC of leisure time. Free of the responsibilities that will soon claim most of their waking hours, they’re the ones who can tap vast amounts of attention for any sort of novelty. A big social change has produced a life stage for twentysomethings that enables them to fritter away tons of time. A couple generations ago, people in that age cohort would have been married and dealing with the onset of parenthood. In 1970, the median age of first marriage was 23.2 for men and 20.8 for women, according to Census data. By last year, it was 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women. Those extra years of unmarried life mean untold hours of extra discretionary time, enabling twentysomethings to engage as they otherwise could not with new media.

As young adults grow into real adulthood, they’ll no doubt remain more engaged with new technologies than their elders are. But that doesn’t mean they’ll have as much time (or energy) for such pastimes as they now do. Despite all the social changes of recent years, a majority of people still marry and have kids. Having done so, they’re obliged for the next couple decades to deal with multiple tasks that don’t fall under the rubric of mediacentric multitasking. It’s hard to make the time for a Second Life when the demands of your first life have become pressing. We get a sense of that from this year’s edition of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, analyzing data for 2005. Adding up what the report terms “all leisure and sports activities,” people with kids under age 6 in the household have more than an hour and a half less each day for such diversions than people without children that age. One telling detail: Those with young kids in the household have half as much time for the subcategory “relaxing/ thinking” as those without small fry.

Too much work, too many shortcuts

But these aren’t the only adults in America who feel pressed for time. Work is an obvious reason for this. Recent polling by WorkPlace Media found 92 percent of workers saying they toil more than 40 hours a week, including 23 percent who work more than 50 hours. The influx of women into the labor market has notoriously left them to deal with a “second shift” of family responsibilities when they get home, meaning even less time for themselves. Time pressures also lead people to take shortcuts they might otherwise avoid. For instance, one Kaiser Family Foundation study found 39 percent of parents who put a TV set in the room of a child under age 6 did so because “it keeps the child occupied so the parent can do things around the house.” People have also cut back drastically on housework, which is why the standard greeting for a visitor to one’s home is the plaint, “My house is a mess!” Elsewhere on the domestic front, people have made time by replacing home-cooked food with takeout and other sorts of convenience fare, but they don’t necessarily feel happy about this tradeoff. In a Harris Interactive poll conducted for Beringer Founders’ Estate wines, 44 percent of adults said they’d have a “nice dinner at home” more often if they had more time to cook it.

A new Yankelovich poll found that “half of consumers across all income levels now say that a lack of time is a bigger problem in their lives than a lack of money.” For men, lack of time leaves them “feeling that I’m missing out on the important things in life”; for women, it “manifests itself in skimping on ‘me time,’ ” as they’re “more likely to neglect personal care and health-related activities.” In an International Communications Research survey this past summer, 37 percent of women (and 46 percent of those with kids at home) said they “rarely or never make time to do something special just for themselves.” Little wonder, then, that a different Yankelovich poll found 43 percent of men and 55 percent of women (including 59 percent of mothers) saying they “often feel too tired to do the things I want to do.” A Barna Group poll this fall asked adults to cite activities they look forward to a lot, and the leading vote-getter was “getting a good night’s sleep.” These folks will have decidedly mixed feelings about the arrival of exotic new ways for them to spend time they don’t have. Indeed, the degree to which people feel rushed correlates significantly with whether they’re happy in general, as you can gather from the chart below that excerpts a Pew Research Center poll on the topic.

How about some monotasking?

Multitasking does create a bit of slack as we simultaneously engage with various media. But multitasking is in some ways an artifact of the old-media age, as when we glance at the newspaper while half-watching a ballgame on TV. The more we receive multiple forms of content through computers or their mobile offspring, the less feasible it will be to take in more than one stream at the same time—and all the more so as providers make Web content more “immersive.” (Why do you suppose they chose a word that evokes images of someone drowning?) Even the most facile multitasker will be hard-pressed to watch a movie on his computer while playing a game on his computer and following a podcast on his computer. If he wants to do all of these things, he’ll need to find the time to do them in sequence. And that’s what many consumers prefer in any case, even among those young enough to have grown up in a multitasking environment. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey found lots of young adults would rather take in content one piece at a time. The chart at above right gives an example of this. More broadly, when the respondents were asked whether they prefer to “focus on one thing at a time” or to multitask, a sizable minority of 18-24-year-olds (41 percent) placed themselves in the one-at-a-time camp.

Time limitations can make some of our media engagement a zero-sum game. An article last month in The New York Times quoted Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, as saying a new blog is being created every second of every day. But he also provided Google’s estimate of how many readers the average blog has: one. When you think about it, the numbers go in tandem: The more time people spend creating and updating their own blogs, the less time they have to read anybody else’s—or, for that matter, to do anything else.

But maybe consumers are too busy (if that’s the right word in this context) sitting around with not-so-new media. And that goes for youngish adults as well as for geezers. In a Forrester Research study of North American households’ media habits, Gen Xers (age 27-40) reported spending more time per week watching TV than using the Internet, 11.2 hours vs. 9.5. Among Gen Yers (age 18-26), Internet time exceeded TV time, but by a relatively modest margin (12.2 hours vs. 10.6). In the older cohorts, TV time far exceeded Internet time. TV may seem passé, but it’s still the medium that dominates people’s overall media time. Indeed, older media in general retain a stronger hold on the population at large than do their newer counterparts. We saw evidence of this in an Ipsos Insight poll this past spring in which people were asked whether they’d increase their involvement with various media in the year ahead. As you can see from the chart at lower right, the old versions outscored the newer ones across the board. In its analysis of the data, Ipsos noted that “most consumers lean toward the path of least resistance—involving the smallest amount of learning and behavior change.”

Windex vs. Windows

If such findings seem surprising, it’s partly because enthusiasts for the new underestimate people’s attachment to the old. In that regard, a Harris Interactive poll on consumer perceptions of brand equity is instructive. The top scores went to low-tech household goods such as Reynolds Wrap, Kleenex and Heinz Ketchup. The top 10 included Windex, but not Windows. People who are quite conversant with new technology may nonetheless have an affinity for older methods. Take holiday shopping. A poll by Omnicom Group’s Targetbase unit found that “when it comes to ideas for holiday gift buyers, more traditional sources like window shopping (46 percent) and catalogues (45 percent) still beat Web sites (32 percent), online advertisements (15 percent) and e-mails (14 percent).” And this wasn’t a poll of people who don’t know their way around cyberspace: It was fielded online, and 72 percent of the respondents said they’d be buying gifts that way.

Finally, let’s acknowledge that lack of time is sometimes supplemented by lack of inclination to immerse oneself in the latest new-media content. If adults with real lives and real jobs don’t feel like staying up till all hours to fiddle with their various electronic devices, maybe it’s because the brave new world does not seem as exciting as it’s made out to be. For all the talk about how Web technology is revolutionizing our lives, the ambitions of the new age can seem rather small at times. Early in the last century, people were suddenly able to own automobiles and drive long distances in a single day. Within living memory, it became feasible for the common man to fly from one continent to another in a few hours. So, the advent of the Web 2.0 age means…what? That we can download Jackass Number Two to our cell phones? The proliferation of not-so-killer applications can make the whole technological transformation seem trivial at times, even though (rightly understood) it’s not. If people had endless amounts of free time, they could adopt an undiscriminating attitude toward the mass of offerings now available to them. Given the other demands on their finite waking hours, they’re apt to feel it’s way too much of a partly good thing. They certainly would not want to do without the Internet. But at the end of a too-busy day, some wouldn’t mind if the Internet signed off the air at midnight in each time zone, with the national anthem playing via iTunes as streaming video shows the national flag waving—right before the screen goes dark for the night.