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Yukonomist: Give yourself the gift of a long break this holiday season

My grandmother fondly remembered one of her Whitehorse Christmases in particular, a bit more than a century ago.
A family gets photographed by the city Christmas tree at the end of Main Street in 2019. Writer Keith Halliday suggests turning on phones and spending time with family this holiday season. (Yukon News file)

My grandmother fondly remembered one of her Whitehorse Christmases in particular, a bit more than a century ago.

She and her family rode in a horse-drawn sleigh, nestled under blankets and buffalo robes, from their home on Steele Street out to her uncle’s offgrid cabin. In those days, when the electric lights petered out within a couple blocks of Main Street, offgrid meant somewhere near McCrae.

They wouldn’t even have had short-wave radio, let alone wifi, television, texts or multi-billion-dollar companies filling your newsfeed with attention-seeking clickbait and alarmist headlines.

The Whitehorse newspaper had news that was days or even weeks out of date. You didn’t have a newsfeed with dozens of items a day with video footage of World War I trench battles, or of crowds in Spain panicking about a strange new flu outbreak.

You didn’t get any email reminders that your credit card statement was due, since you didn’t have either email or a credit card. The closest thing they had to surveillance capitalism was Eaton’s sending you their mail-order catalog once a year.

Your acquaintances in a cabin out on Lake Laberge couldn’t make you doubt your family skills by posting carefully curated Instagram photos of them skating on a perfect frozen lake or digging into a perfectly prepared and ethically-sourced organic Christmas tofurkey.

Things are very different today. We seem to be under constant bombardment by everything we have invented over the last hundred years, with COVID-19 layered on top.

The Economist reports that a meta-study published in the medical journal Lancet, including data from 48 papers, estimated that cases of anxiety had risen 26 percent worldwide during the pandemic. The trend has particularly affected women.

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki told the magazine that she estimates one American in five suffers from “clinical anxiety,” with debilitating effects on day-to-day life. If you believe you may be in this group, there are a wide range of mental wellness services available in the Yukon. You can call 1-866-456-3838 toll-free to find out more.

Suzuki also believes less severe, but still troubling, levels of anxiety affect an even larger number of people these days.

People were stressed a hundred years ago, of course. But one thing that is drastically different is our “always on” lives. People work long hours. Children need lifts to activities. Text messages ping relentlessly. Friends on social media expect likes and emojis. In our work-from-home era, the laptop looms in the kitchen, quietly reminding you of an incoming avalanche of work.

Economists, management consultants and the stock market must take some blame here. Economists, for example, seem like the dismal druids of an efficiency cult, calling for higher output every quarter. University of Minnesota economics professor Joel Waldfogel even calculated that Christmas gift giving results in what economic jargon calls a “deadweight loss.” This is because when you buy a gift for someone else, you don’t know their preferences as well as they do. This results in you spending $80 to buy your niece a fancy Fiskars Isocore forged steel splitting maul, which she values at approximately $0. You would both be $40 better off if you just gave her $40 in cash.

But economists don’t deserve all the blame. Sometimes you are your own worst enemy. You don’t turn off your devices. You work that extra hour when you suspect - know, really - it isn’t really necessary. When everyone else seems to be doing the same, it seems natural.

But actually it’s not. One of the more obscure webpages of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of rich countries, has data on the average number of hours worked per year in different countries.

The average Canadian worker puts in 1,644 hours per year. Meanwhile the average French worker does 1,402 hours and the average German slogs through 1,332 hours.

That means the average German works 332 hours less per year than the average Canadian.

Think about that for a second. That’s the equivalent of 41.5 fewer days per year in the salt mines.

And what do our German friends give up in return? Not economic output, it turns out. German annual economic output per person is about US$5,000 higher than the equivalent figure in Canada, adjusted for currencies and purchasing power. The French figure is slightly lower than Canada’s but not by much.

Think about that for a second. What if you worked 41.5 fewer days and generated the same value of output at work.

We already take inspiration at this time of year from German traditions: the Christmas tree, advent calendars and tinsel, for example. You probably didn’t even know those round, shiny things you put on your tree are really called Weihnachtskugeln.

After Year 2 of COVID-19, I suggest we adopt another German tradition: working 41.5 days less per year. Or, at least this holiday season, shutting off the phone, ignoring work, and relaxing with the family for a solid two weeks.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.