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Do you ever get a feeling that something is missing?

You know, the sensation you get when your wallet isn’t in your pocket, you are not entirely sure where you put your keys or you have a nagging sense that you were supposed to be somewhere else.

I fear most of our days have become like that. And it is because so many of us have lost our “twilight zone”, that magical period between the end of work and the start of the evening eat/prepare-for-tomorrow/sleep zone once known as weekday discretionary time.

Some time ago, on a rare day when I had time on my hands, I did a comparison between Bureau of Statistics time use statistics from 1992 and 2006. For a relatively short period of history, the changes in time use were considerable.

But one thing in particular stood out – time spent on weekday socialisation and community activities had fallen by about two thirds. In other words, our twilight zone was shrinking like the ozone layer.

The anecdotal evidence is everywhere:

  • Service clubs struggling to find members, leaders and volunteers who are not retired from work
  • Busy mothers and father trying desperately to finish work assignments, pick up children, make meals and then get something resembling proper sleep
  • More than one in five men (and around 16% of the workforce overall) working more than 50 hour weeks
  • Peak hour traffic conditions that stretch across 2-3 hours
  • Evening airports full of business people day tripping between states
  • Growth in after-work functions and professional networking among Australia’s growing professional and managerial classes
  • Constantly wired employees whose work and home life blur into a perpetual bing of emails, texts and meeting requests.

And on it goes…

The decline of the traditional weekday recreational fringe zone could easily be written off as an inevitable consequence of a globalised economy and tighter economic conditions.

But curiously the change largely happened during one of the best runs of economic circumstances in a century.

I suspect the real culprit is options. The one metric we can’t change in our lives is 24 hours in a day yet the options to fill our days have grown at least a thousandfold in the past 20 years.

We are all trying to cram in too much and discretionary time in our “twilight zone” has become a casualty. Perhaps even more concerning is that it appears social, community and family time may have been the biggest losers.

I am often reminded of the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers and the medical miracle that was Roseto, Pennsylvania. The town of 1500 people had exceptionally low rates of major chronic health disorders. Doctors looked for the secret in geography and diet but found it in community. The best answer seemed to be that being part of an extraordinarily close-knit and highly socialised community was very beneficial for our well-being.

Yet this seems to be the very thing we are opting to throw out of the balloon basket when the options weigh us down. I have seen little evidence that social media is an effective substitute.

I remember a fascinating research slide from AustraliaSCAN social analyst David Chalke showing that, around 2005, Australians started to regard choice as a negative. Too much choice was becoming stressful.

Just 20 years earlier, high school economics classes were telling us that having a lot of choice was an indicator of high living standards. How times change.

Perhaps, in the future, all activities might have to come with a health warning that says too much choice is bad for you. And bringing back the twilight zone from extinction might be the remedy.

Shane Rodgers is a business executive, writer and marketer with a strong interest in social change and what makes people tick. He is the author of the satirical e-book – Tall People Don’t Jump – the curious behaviour of human beings. Opinions expressed in these posts are personal.