In the United States, the average work week has plummeted from 61 hours in 1870 to less than 35 hours today. According to the CDC, Americans now spend more than 5 hours per day “being entertained, socializing, engaging in exercise and recreation activities, volunteering, taking classes for personal interest, and travelling.”
Americans now spend almost one-third of our waking hours relaxing. And the reason, in a word, is markets. Not only did free markets make our work more productive, they forced employers to compete. As a result, companies and bosses started offering better pay, shorter days, and, in the modern era, opportunities for time-saving remote work. Since 1950, global per capita work has decreased 17%, from 2,227 hours a year to 1,855. During that same period, inflation-adjusted income has increased 111%. That means on average we are earning twice as much while working significantly less.
So the next time you’re bored, blame free markets. Then pick up an iPhone, or a Kindle, or an Xbox.
To be specific, that’s the power of Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. Competition is the engine that powers progress in markets, and thousands of companies are competing for the right to keep us entertained, informed, and happy. But there’s a catch, something economists call “subjective value.”
At its core, subjective value is simply the belief that everybody has unique preferences. Subjective value explains why some people love jazz, or poetry, or the movie Die Hard, while others can’t stand them. Products, including TV shows, books and games, don’t have innate value. Their value depends on the subjective preferences of individuals like you. And preferences change over time. That’s why Blockbuster can be worth billions in 2004 and pennies just a few years later.
In the past few decades, as technology made it easier for content creators and distributors to find an audience, we’ve witnessed an explosion in the number and variety of products designed to fill our leisure time. With nothing but an iPhone and an internet connection, you can access YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok—the entire internet is at your fingertips. You can connect with friends on Discord or learn French on DuoLingo. You can meditate with Headspace or search for recipes on Tasty.
About three-quarters of the increase in leisure time since 2000 has gone to gaming. Games now grab more than 7.5 hours of our leisure time every week. What was once a niche industry serving a small but dedicated fanbase has become a $120 billion juggernaut. And thanks to innovations like Twitch, the live-streaming platform acquired by Amazon for $970 million, thousands of gamers have been able to turn their hobby into a source of income as they compete and collaborate with other players from around the world.
In the 19th century, the problem was that we didn’t have anything to do with all of our newfound free time. In 2020, the problem is that we have too much to do. In 2019, Netflix released a new original title every single day. That’s more new content than the entire TV industry combined produced in 2005.
More, better, cheaper, and something for everyone—that’s the power of markets to improve everything.