Going nowhere fast

We'd rather die than admit to time on our hands, but is all this frenetic activity really necessary? Rachel Newsome on the generation busy being busy
ASK SOMEONE how they are these days and the answer will not be "Fine, cheers" or "Bearing up, ta," but "God, I'm so tired. I've been so busy. There's my high-powered job with the long hours and important meetings, my rich cultural life of film, theatre, art galleries, music and cult TV, my many friends with their different lifestyle choices, the partner with whom I have an active sex life, my personal training programme..." And so on. We'd rather die than admit to scrolling through empty Palm Pilots, but the truth is that young childless urban types don't know the meaning of the word "busy". Time was when busy meant bringing up kids, holding down jobs and attacking the piles of washing threatening to colonise the house. Not to mention caring for the aging members of your extended family. Think back to the Fifties when washing machines were practically extraterrestial, dishwashers non-existent and if you wanted a pint of milk, you had to queue for it at the local general store before it shut at five, just like everyone else. By the time you'd returned from work and done all the shopping, cooking and housework, it was time for bed.

The future, they said, would be bright. In the future, they explained, we would inhabit a streamlined world of leisure, poolside cocktails and utopian pleasure: we would be happier, healthier and more at one with ourselves and others than ever before. Back in the real world, the future seems to have reduced itself to the mobile phone. Millions of them all humming at once in a non-stop 24 hour mass communicado. And not only mobiles but the dissolution of boundaries between work and leisure which goes with them, ensuring that the future is no louche nirvana but a state of existence where everyone is switched on and ready to go.

We must be busy, because adverts selling us time-management courses and stress-busting therapy tell us so. Then there are the 24-hour mini-marts "looking after you day and night" and shortly, if you believe the hype, the 24-hour cities, because in the future, of course, everyone will be too busy to sleep. But what exactly is it that we are all busy doing? It seems that these days we are increasingly busy being busy. Our leisure and holiday time may have more than doubled in the past twenty years, we may spend an average of twenty hours a week watching TV, while heating frozen meals for one in microwaves, then piling plates into dishwashers and cleaning our teeth with electric toothbrushes. But despite having more labour saving devices than the entire Innovations back catalogue - and so presumably more time - it seems that our lives are busier than ever before.

We live in an age in which information is obsessively generated and the culture is accelerating faster than ever before. The message is, if you don't join in, you lose out. And because you're so busy, you rely on others to decide how you spend your time. Your weekends are not your own. They are the property of Time Out and countless listing magazines. They tell you that if you haven't cried through Titanic, waded through Bridget Jones, trekked to the latest Saatchi exhibition, conquered Resident Evil 2, hung out at Damien Hirst's Pharmacy, learnt the names of Joey's sisters in Friends and which one is which in All Saints, you must be a social amoeba with no life and no friends.

This is what Professor Carey Cooper of UMIST (the University Of Manchester Institute Of Science And Technology) calls "frenetic culture". "There is no such thing as a genuine leisure society," he adds. "Society is saying you must be on top of everything around you and that includes going to see all the latest films. Even going to a gym is an extension of your working hours because you're using machines designed to make you go faster and work harder. Information technology means that faxes and e-mail and mobiles speed up the pace of life because you're contactable anywhere and they demand an immediacy of response."

Which brings us back to mobile phones. Kate, an independent record label manager, bought a mobile phone to keep in touch with her office when she was out and about. "I bought it for important emergency phone calls," she sighs. "But because I have it to hand, I use it to make small check- up calls, so in a way it's made me busier than I was before because I'm on the phone all the time. But if I was honest, I'd say I didn't need to be."

For being busy isn't at all the same as working a long, hard day of low- paid, boring work. Or being a single working mother (the aristocrats of exhaustion). Unlike those of us who like to think we're busy because we have diaries full of Very Important social engagements, books to read, films to see and girl band names to memorise, Lucy Orta is up at seven every morning with her two children, three and five, who she dresses, feeds and drives to school in order to be back home for nine. Then her day as a professional artist and self-employed businesswoman begins. With seven projects on the go from publications to installations, art actions and exhibitions, there are phone calls to be made, assistants to be managed and meetings to be planned - aside from working on actual art projects. Then it's back to school, collect the children, cook dinner, put them to bed and carry on working until midnight. "I don't go out to restaurants or drinking. I wouldn't say I was unusually busy," Orta demurs. "It's just that I seem to be more busy than the people around me."

It is seismic shifts in patterns of family and community combined with the secularisation of society which psychologist Ben Williams believes is behind this collective desperation. The appearance of being busy, he says, helps us to take control of our lives by filling the gap previously occupied by more spiritual concerns. "People need background noise, the radio and the TV on at the same time, they need to feel like they're doing something all the time because they're afraid of being alone and being seen not to be doing anything," he explains. "People have been more able to cope in the past because they were more spiritually and intellectually aware. Being alone, friendlessness, lack of support, these are threatening to human beings, so we'll do anything to maintain these relationships and get involved with activities. It's like chewing gum for the soul."

"Being busy" has evolved into an attractive state of existence which denotes popularity, personal fulfilment and cultural awareness. Most importantly, busy-ness has become a social status symbol which says, the more you do, the more successful you are. But it is when values like these - based on insecurity rather positive attributes - become dominant, warns Professor Cooper, that systems become dysfunctional. "First we had 'Having it all' in the early Nineties. Then we did downsizing at work. But the people who still have jobs suffer from what I call presentee-ism," he explains. "Which is, they see so many people losing jobs around them, that they have to be seen to be busy - even if they are not."

There are some obvious downsides to perpetual busy-ness. Like, for example, lack of personal disposable time. Or the freedom to sometimes just sit back and enjoy life. Or being so busy that our personal relationships are affected. Sure, we now have entire businesses devoted to coping with busy-ness. Gym membership is higher than ever, aromatherapy massage is the new yoga and feng shui is so popular you can even buy the magazine. The only problem is,when we're not out to lunch or at a launch, we're so preoccupied with toning our triceps, discovering our chakra and learning the best place in a room to keep the wastepaper bin, that we're too busy to stop and think.