I used to joke about my own little leading economic indicator, the JEI ... or my “Junk E-Mail Index.” I sometimes called it the FEI too, replacing “junk” with “forwarded.” In the 1990s, when e-mail was new and unemployment was incredibly low, my JEI was incredibly high. I attributed this partly to the novelty of it all. Pushing just a single button to send a message instantly was just so cool, so why not forward junk around and press that button even more? But I think there was another reason too: People sitting in the cubicle farms of the day also had time to waste.
Then in 2001, my JEI dropped abruptly. The dot-com bubble had burst and companies were downsizing. My employed friends were too busy to fire off those time-wasting emails. Still, the JEI climbed slowly through the decade; again, people had time to waste. Then in 2009 it just dropped off a cliff. The only junk emails I get now are advertisements, not forwards from friends. We’re all just too busy.