There's no spare capacity for emergencies. We're not uncaring, but we're often too overloaded ourselves to notice other people's suffering or when we do, to have the capacity to respond. (Shaping this thought is the story told often in church sermons of seminarians in a hurry to go give a talk rushing past someone in need of help, except sometimes when their topic is the Good Samaritan. It's not that the story's magic, its that we see things in the context of what we're thinking of. Late doesn't leave room for stopping.)
This looks like a systematic problem to me. Especially right now when the economy's bad, I'm seeing people give advice like "don't possibly consider leaving your job unless you have something lined up, or you're screwed". This is probably good advice, but it implies a terrible system. People without options have the tension ratcheted up. They work more, they're more stressed out, meaning they have little energy left when they get home. A good deal of our social systems assume we've got the spare capacity around. Think of the amount of volunteering that's necessary to keep schools, neighborhood groups, and good causes running. Another article I ran across lately was talking about volunteer burnout, and how it was particular bad for parents, mothers especially, who were expected to contribute hours and hours. The article talked about one volunteer who reprioritized after realizing she didn't care very much about the specific school projects, and she wanted more family time. Those cases are relatively easy (though there's still a lot of social expectation out there). But there are multitudes of genuinely worthwhile causes, that would merit our time, if only we had enough. (Note here: I have things pretty good - I can get away with a 40 hour week, and have chosen lots of personally fulfilling hobbies to fill the other time. Still need to figure out the volunteering balance, and the "having spare capacity" parts, I've just got the extra room to do so)
There've been a couple studies looking at optimal productivity. They're part of the reason for a 40 hour work week. Manual labor becomes much less effective per hour (and at some point not too much later actually counter productive, where more work's created than finished). Fewer studies have looked at mental work, but what they've shown suggests the productive limit is even lower. I wonder what my community would look like if the standard work day was 6 hours instead of 8. Would it give us a more flexible system, that handled emergencies or community needs better, by leaving time for them? Would we be more productive at work?
This leads in two directions for me - the balance mentioned above, and figuring out rules of thumb for an ideal schedule. I've got at least some idea of the time I need for myself, for partners/family, for dealing with house stuff, work, hobbies.
The other direction is wondering what burdens can go away? Are there unnecessary tasks or obligations? Things that could be automated or done away with? Still yet more studies have shown that many time-saving gadgets don't save time, they just let us raise our standards for what's appropriate. Does that mean the old quality or the current quality isn't good enough? Or do we just like optimizing things?
It's be interesting to see a science fiction or fantasy story looking at some of this. I could see one contrasting a culture (sure, call it "France" :) ) with people who don't overwork, have leisure and look to the outside somewhat lazy, and an outsider from a work all the time society. The outsider might appear to have an advantage, but wouldn't be nearly as able to cope with emergencies that crop up, and they always do. Even small, personal emergencies - sickness in the family, relationship stress, etc - can be too much to take, if nothing's available to give.