Entangled in time?
by Robert Gilman, provided by The Context Institute, reprinted with permission
Maybe it's time to create... a new relationship with time
ime is one of the few universal things we all have in
common. But what is our relationship with this powerful master? One of the
most pervasive - and personal - signs of distress in our society is the
dissatisfaction so many people seem to feel in their relationship with time.
Lots of people feel they have too little. Some have too much. Few are pleased
or at peace.
The causes of this dissatisfaction are deeply entangled
with some of the major cultural forces that are driving change in our society.
Where does the time go?
The statistics on productivity present us with a paradox:
If we're so darned efficient, how come we're so harried? Isn't a major point
of all our efficiency to save time? Why isn't this supposedly productive,
modern life providing us with more satisfaction and sense of meaning? There
are many reasons:
1. The work equation
It is important to recognize that not everyone in the
society feels time-poor. Indeed, the society seems to be splitting into
those with too little free time and those with too much.
For three decades, John P. Robinson, a sociologist at
the University of Maryland, has been studying how Americans spend their
time. What he and others find is that those with the least amount of free
time are men and women aged 36 to 50 with jobs. Youth, seniors, and the
unemployed have the most free time [American Demographics, July 1989]. Some
of these are using this time well, but for many it becomes a wasteland of
boredom and disengagement, filled all too often with TV, video, other forms
of commercial entertainment, and substance abuse.
The most appealing way out of this imbalance, which
hurts both the overworked middle and the under-engaged at the ends of the
life span, is for those in the middle to work less. The most obvious consequences
would be more free time for the employed middle and more jobs available
for youth, seniors, and the unemployed middle.
Yet there is another consequence that may be at least
as important. A significant number of those now working less would use some
of their additional free time to be active and productive in their households
and in their community. Many would volunteer with groups working in some
way for the common good. Their involvement would bring a vitality to the
family, community, and non-profit worlds that would enable more engagement
by youth and seniors in settings that are not as demanding as the world
of paid work has become. The benefits for society could be enormous.
2. Community life
How we use our free time contributes significantly to
the satisfaction we get from it. Almost all the increase in free time from
1965 to 1985 went into additional TV viewing. Other categories that increased
were sports and outdoor activities, family conversations and adult education.
Categories that declined include reading, visiting, going to church, clubs
and cultural events - activities that build community [American Demographics,
Getting the presently overworked to work less could
help to reinvigorate community life in powerful ways, providing more satisfying
free time options for everyone.
3. The downside of productivity
Increased productivity in the economy can lead to an
escalating "arms race" at the personal level that is as wasteful
and destructive as arms races have been in international relations. Here's
how the cycle works: Increased productivity shrinks the available employment.
The fear produced by this shrinking job market gets many people to try harder
to stay employable. They devote more of their time either to work or to
"success-enhancing" activities such as more job-related education,
networking, clothes buying, etc. As some people gain a benefit through this
strategy, others rush to catch up and a new basic standard is set. The net
result is that everyone is now working harder to stay in the same relative
This gets carried further among parents who want to
make sure their children have a good seat at the shrinking job table of
the future. To stay ahead of the pack, parents and children must rush from
one enrichment activity to another. It is no wonder that the parents, many
of whom are also trapped in their own "success-enhancing" arms
race, feel harried!
When unemployment becomes real-ly severe, this kind
of personal competition can spill over into ethnic, racial and class conflicts,
and even into war. That was certainly the case in World War II, and it is
probably no coincidence that Yugoslavia suffered a long period of economic
decline and unemployment before its present tragic civil war.
The only real way to bring peace to the employment arms
race is for jobs to be better distributed so that everyone can be secure
in their ability to get the employment they need. Given the close connection
between personal insecurity and hostility between groups, this may be a
necessary requirement for global peace as well.
4. Time for your stuff
Possessions demand more time than we often realize.
If you buy a camera, or a pair of skis, or a food processor, or a hundred
other similar items, you must spend the working time to pay for the item,
for all associated taxes, for a home big enough to store all these possessions,
and for their upkeep. You then need to spend the personal time to shop for
it (including whatever research you do), to use it, to maintain it, protect
it, and eventually dispose of it. Item by item, this may not seem like a
great burden, but as the possessions accumulate, so do the total time demands.
We can get out of this trap and yet still have access
to lots of things if we develop strong bonds of community and friendship.
Then many items can be shared in their use, and only one (or a few) of the
sharers needs to attend to all the other time demands associated with that
item. The rub is that building strong relationships also takes time, but
many people would come out ahead - in many more ways than just time - if
they worked less, had less money to buy things with, spent more time on
relationships, and did more sharing.
5. Time to just be
The 24-hour availability of so many things-to-do plus
the speed of modern communications have deprived many of us of enforced
"downtime" - time when it is socially acceptable to just be. This
"downtime," or being, may not look like it is good for much, but
in fact it is vitally important for our health, creativity, and restoration,
not to mention our enjoyment of life.
Because this personal restoration time no longer comes
to us just through the normal course of life, we need to develop new social
norms that encourage and support people taking the time they need. The changes
in attitudes needed for these new social norms are essentially the same
as those needed to encourage the most employable adults to choose to spend
less time in paid employment.
Less jobs, more time?
Sometimes we fail to see great opportunities because,
to our conventional eyes, they look like impending disasters. In the 15
years from 1975 to 1990, Gross World Product (GWP) per capita increased
by about 20 percent while per capita employment dropped by 1.2 percent.
It is becoming increasingly clear that jobs, and especially good jobs, are
getting harder to come by on a global basis. Looking into the future, the
United Nation Development Project projects that the ratio of employment
to GWP will continue to drop. Assuming that the GWP continues its long-term
trend, per capita employment in 2000 will have dropped by another 8 percent!
Even this may be overly optimistic. Other estimates
note that even for our present level of consumption, about half the work
in the United States is unproductive and unnecessary - except for the cash
flow through the systems involved. And if our society were to take sustainability
seriously - with long-life products and efficient use of resources - we
would cut down the necessary work still further. From a purely efficiency
point of view, we could thus have more (perhaps much more) than a 50 percent
drop in per capita employment. But this is literally unthinkable in today's
As a society, we have attempted to resist the long-term
trends that are driving per capita employment down. We have pumped up demand
through advertising and an ethic of consumerism. When agricultural jobs
declined, we expanded manufacturing. When manufacturing jobs declined, we
expanded services. And all along we have turned a blind eye to many wasteful
practices as long as they created jobs.
But these strategies are now running out of steam. International
competition is forcing companies (and countries) to eliminate waste that
they previously tolerated. The damage our consumerism has wrought on the
environment is becoming better understood, and for many, the thrill and
glamour of consumerism is fading. The service industries are starting to
make significant improvements in productivity, reducing their employment
needs. Ecological and social constraints are beginning to slow economic
growth all over the world. All in all, a steep drop in per capita employment
may be unavoidable.
Given our present social and economic systems, such
a drop would be disastrous, because jobs play at least three roles: they
contribute to the production of goods and services, they provide the employed
and his or her family with income, and they often provide the employed with
a sense of worth, identity, and purpose.
What are our options as a society to respond to this
"employment crisis" which can also be looked at as a time, money,
and identity crisis? The basic responses fall into the following groups:
We can continue to create "make-work" through unproductive
and unnecessary jobs, whether in the public or private sectors.
This may be the path of least short-term resistance, but it
is basically a pitiful attempt to shore up a failing system. It is fundamentally
a destructive approach that wastes lives and wastes the environment, and
its consequences are already becoming visible. Competitive pressure may
make this no longer a viable option even in the short term.
We can adopt a Social Darwinist approach - "Let the unemployed
Globally, we are already doing this to some extent, and our
present treatment of the homeless has a Social Darwinist flavor to it. This
approach also leads to disaster. In addition to all the strong moral reasons
against it, it is a highly polarizing approach that breeds violence and
terrorism. As our world becomes ever more highly interconnected, maintaining
the gulf between the haves and the have nots becomes ever more costly, impractical,
We can adopt a welfare approach in which we tax the employed to provide
an income for the unemployed.
This approach has worked to some extent as long as the number
of unemployed was small or everyone felt that unemployment would be temporary.
Those assumptions haven't held for some time, and the
trends all suggest they will apply even less in the future. The result has
been a considerable revolt among the working public, who feel over-taxed
as well as over-worked. So this too is neither a morally appealing nor a
practical way to address the long-term downturn in per capita employment
- though it is the status quo.
We can create a new work ethic.
Perhaps the most challenging, this may in the long run be the
only successful approach. The presently employed can work less, thereby
spreading a smaller work load among more people. Working less may for some
mean a shorter workweek, while for others it could mean long leaves or sabbaticals
alternating with intense periods of work. I know a doctor who shared a practice
with two other doctors. Each worked 8 months per year, with staggered schedules
so that there were always two of them on the job. The possible variations
Spreading paid work to a broader proportion of the society,
and spreading social value and meaning beyond paid work has cascading benefits
for everyone and will ultimately be intrinsic to the ways we reinvent our
relationship with time.
This last approach has its challenges and obstacles
as well, but it is the option with by far the most positive consequences.
All contents copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute. Please send comments via email to webmastercon-text.org. On the WorldWide Web, the Context Institute can be found at www.context.org/ICLIB/IC37/Gilman.htm.