Numerous studies have shown that time pressure is widespread among workers in today's economy. Demands on our time often exceed our ability to meet them and can become a source of stress that crosses racial, gender, and class boundaries. Moreover, in the American context, stress related to time pressure is considered as contributing to a public health crisis. Two puzzles emerge from existing research: First, objective measures of time use are poor predictors of how people experience time pressure subjectively. In other words, people who work long hours do not necessarily report feeling rushed, overwhelmed, burned out, or pressed for time. Yet, some groups with relatively low work hours and high leisure time do report feeling a great deal of time-related stress. Second, the number of people reporting time pressure has risen over the last few decades, although longitudinal statistics show no clear trend regarding a decrease in leisure time compared to the past.

This project addresses this puzzle by analyzing the link between employment context and the subjective experience of time pressure. The central research question is: How do different occupational contexts shape the way people experience time, leading some to experience time as a source of stress? The data collection includes observations of and interviews with executive professionals, truck drivers and unemployed persons. The project evaluates (1) how time pressure is produced in different employment contexts, (2) how the flexibility of one's schedule and the perceived value of one's time shape the flow of work, and (3) how individuals make meaning of a time-pressured life within different cultural contexts.

Broader Impacts The project addresses pressing public concern about the pace of life in modern societies like the United States. As Americans are increasingly squeezed between complex and often competing demands of work and life, the need to better understand how individuals cope with the new forms of stress created by these fast and fluid social conditions becomes paramount. Project findings will help researchers, policy makers, and employers better understand how different ways of organizing the work experience produce different forms of time-related stress.

Project Report

New forms of capitalist production, logistics, and human resource management have dramatically transformed how Americans work. This project presents data from the front lines of this changing employment landscape, focusing on three major sources of change—the financialization of the economy, the flexibilization of the workforce, and the 2008 financial collapse—as they are experienced by three diverse groups of workers—financial services professionals, long-haul truck drivers, and unemployed job seekers. The major finding is that Americans in a variety of different jobs experience these sources of change as a transformation in their experience of "social time"—the unique rhythms and flows created by work tasks, work schedules, and career trajectories. Workers experience the temporality of their employment in ways that were unimaginable just a generation ago. This produces a troubling existential dilemma that is of great concern to respondents across the class spectrum: time feels unsustainable. Because everyday life feels so fragmented and staccato, they have difficulty projecting themselves into the future; they have trouble seeing and constructing a narrative about what good work looks like and what a good life trajectory looks like. Even when they are able to capture a sense of meaningfulness, purpose, and direction in their jobs, this constructing feels valid only in the short term and is constantly subject to change. Employers, unfortunately, seem either unconcerned or unable to address this widespread existential dilemma, choosing (or being forced) to focus on the disjointed rhythms and short-term time frames of quarterly efficiency, speed, and profitability. The project uses these data to construct a new theory of social change, which focuses on the "rhythms of uncertainty" produced by new economic and technological developments. To date, the project has produced two academic articles, a book manuscript, four conference presentations, and two interviews for media outlets. This project has policy implications. As employers and policy makers attempt to rebuild the labor market following the 2008 financial collapse, it is imperative that they remain aware of the new textures of social time created by the new types of jobs that are replacing the millions lost. If stable, career-like trajectories of employment are replaced only with temporary, unstable, and staccato trajectories, the existential dilemmas seen in this project will only become more widespread, leading to a workforce with lower rates of job satisfaction, higher rates of stress-related illness, and a generally less happy and productive workforce. A concrete domain of action in which policy-makers can address this problem is to find ways to preserve the career as a model for organizing work. Careers produce linear, routine, and predictable temporalities that allow workers to live more settled lives. This is a difficult domain to address, however, given employers’—especially large corporate employers’—preference for replacing career work with temporary, freelance, and contract-based work. Whatever the specific action steps taken, in general the results of this study suggest that policy-makers should pay special attention to the qualities of the jobs they create, not just how many are created to replace the ones that have been lost.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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University of Virginia
United States
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