Insomniacs rejoice! Scientists have discovered a hormone that may cure a person’s need for sleep. By 2020, we may very well be able to pop a pill a day instead of laying down for 6-8 hours of shut-eye.
Obviously such a development could have enormous consequences on the human race, but no aspect of society would be more effected than the economy. Our entire financial existence is built around the fact that everyone needs to be unconscious about once a day for one-quarter to one-third of that day, typically at night. The availability of a ten-second replacement for sleep would give everyone a couple thousands extra hours of “awake time” each year.
Let’s look at a best- (or maybe worst) case-scenario where the “sleep cure” pill is readily available, extremely inexpensive, free of side effects, and quickly adopted by just about everyone in the developed word. I predict that the end of sleep would devastate the world-wide economy simply because so much would change so quickly from how it’s been for hundreds of years of modern living.
Here’s a look at what the economy would look like in a sleepless society.
- People would work more. Regardless of what you might think you’d do if you had an extra six or eight hours a day, most people would end up using at least some of it to work more at their jobs. In fact, if everyone’s waking hours increased by 25-50%, it might be expected that everyone would work 10-12 hours a day. This might not necessarily mean more income for everyone; retailers might pull in more money, especially with shoppers out and about 24/7, but many other industries would not see a sizable increase in revenue to support wage hikes.
- Unemployment would go through the roof. While retailers might need more people to help work a 24/7 economy, other areas might not need as much manpower. If I can get two people to work 12 hours a day, why would I need three people to work 8 hours a day? That third person would be out of a job, which means unemployment in a sleepless world could rise to 33% or more!
- Traffic would ease. Thanks to that lovely new unemployment rate and the adoption of the graveyard shift as a much more common work schedule, traffic congestion on the road and in the air would drop considerably for a while. This would translate into even more free time for workers. Other effects of fewer traffic problems: taxes for highway widening projects would decrease, traffic accidents would decline, and middle fingers everywhere would eventually fall off from lack of exercise.
- Housing prices would drop through the floor. Part of this would be driven by that high unemployment rate, but another part would be due to the fact that people wouldn’t need to have a place to “live” anymore. Think about it. Virtually every requirement that a home fulfills has been replaced in modern society. We can eat all our meals out, keep in touch with family by cell phone and e-mail, store all our crap electronically (or in our car trunk, or in a storage space)—but we still need a place to sleep. With people able to move 24 hours a day, there’d be no need to return to a home for hours of horizontal unconsciousness. At the very least, a house with four bedrooms would become a house with four “wasted spaces.” Sure, not everyone would want to part with having a shelter of their own; but if even 10% of the population saw going homeless as a great way to save money, the housing market would be obliterated.
- Energy use would skyrocket. With people up all night, you better believe more lights would be on. This could end up being the most troublesome consequence of a sleepless society as many cities are already stretching the capacity of their power grids. As a result, while your awake time and energy usage may only rise 50%, you could see your utility bills double, triple, or go even higher.
- Food prices would soar. If your body is active for 50% more of the day, it will need 50% more energy to support that activity. And until they have a cure for needing to eat, that means we’d all be eating a new meal around one o’clock each morning. (I hereby officially call it nightmeal™. Now you have to pay me $10 a day to eat it.) Nightmeals would be even bigger than dinner since a third of our energy would need to be replaced by it. I feel sorry for the unemployed housewives (and househusbands) who would have to cook two large meals a day now, but even more concerning would be the toll on our food supply. You could probably expect prices at your local supermarket to increase exponentially as our waking hours increase.
- The price of just about everything would jump. When food prices rise, so too do the prices of everything else. This might be counteracted by the severe drop in housing prices, but it’s too soon to tell if the two would balance each other perfectly or not.
- Birth rates would decline. Outside of movies, people tend to have sex right before they go to sleep. Without the sleep aspect, people just wouldn’t have as much sex. That means fewer babies would be born—a lot fewer. I’d even go out on a limb and say that a sleepless world would see its population start to decrease as the mortality rate overtakes the birth rate.
- Lifespans would shorten. Even if scientists found a way to counteract the effects not sleeping would have on our bodies, we would still live shorter lives on average due to the changes to society that would result. For starters, more energy use means more pollution, and more pollution means more pollution-related illnesses. More work, higher prices, and no sex would all contribute to soaring stress levels, and we all know what that can do to a person. You might be awake 50% more often, but I bet the average human lifespan would drop one-third to compensate.
- The mattress industry would be bankrupted, as would many other businesses that make money off of your sleeping habits. We’d have to say good-bye to makers of sleeping pills, stay-awake pills, lingerie and other bedroom clothes, alarm clocks, sleeping masks, and even those dream interpretation books you keep buying at the checkout counter.
Of course, for any of this to happen, just about everyone would have to hop on board the “no more sleep” bandwagon. So let me pose this question: if you didn’t have to sleep anymore, would you do it anyway? My personal answer is no, I would not sleep if I didn’t have to, and I’d probably spend most of the extra time playing videogames and enjoying my nightmeals.