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The Politics of Waiting: Those Who Wait & Those Who Don’t

“…modern society might easily be divided into two classes: those who have to wait and those who don’t,” (Ambient Television, pg. 198).

I recently discovered sociologist Barry Schwartz’s concept of those who wait and those who don’t in Ambient Television by Anna McCarthy.

The idea clicked for me immediately. Some don’t have to wait at all (the famous and extremely wealthy), while others have to wait a bit, and some much, much longer. How often and for how long we have to wait is directly linked to our perceived social and economic status. There’s a price to pay in order to bypass lines (from organ transplant lists to Disneyland) and only the rich and well-to-do often have easy access to these necessities and luxuries. As McCarthy points out, “for many people – women, the poor, and others who occupy particularly disadvantaged positions within systems of social administration – the long wait is a time-consuming and inevitable requirement of basic access to goods and services in modern life,” (pg. 198). Lately I’ve noticed, in particular, that whenever I find myself in a doctor’s office or hospital waiting room, women often make up more than half of those who are waiting.

The predominance of women in medical waiting rooms presumably has something to do with the required attentiveness of women’s health, and also because mothers often play an active role in caring for their children. I’d argue that women also tend to take up the responsibility of caring for and supporting their significant others, family, and friends, and may accompany these people to their doctor’s appointments at times too. In my immediate experience, my mother brought me and my sister to all of our appointments growing up, and she still supports us by coming to the important ones. She takes my father to most of his major appointments, but she herself, nearly always goes alone. The work of the mother frequently goes under-appreciated, but it’s important that we begin to acknowledge what a consuming job it is, and how disproportionately the mother (or wife, sister, and friend) is expected to wait in order to literally keep everything together and moving along. One should also consider the long list of necessities that the poor and homeless must spend their time waiting for just to survive; from public housing waitlists, to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and public transportation – the list goes on and on.

So why does this matter? The fact that class, gender, and a number of other marginalizing factors affect how long one must wait for goods and necessities is extremely troubling. The saying may be a cliché, but I am convinced of its accuracy: time is money. So if those without money or status are expected to wait, what does this say about how we, as a society, value their time?

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