I came across these words on a billboard outside a Baptist Church whilst on holiday in North Carolina last month. In North Carolina (for those of you who haven’t been) you pass a Baptist Church approximately every 33 seconds and most of them have these oddly tacky motel-like billboards out front bearing slogans like “Justified by his blood, ye shall be saved” (works best if you read it in a strong Southern accent, like you’re a semi-crazed preacher about to spontaneously shout “praise the Lord!”). But on this occasion, rather than making me chuckle to myself, the Baptists’ sign made me think.
It made me think about time and how we value it.
It turns out I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about time recently: the New Economics Foundation (nef) have just this week published a brilliant collection of essays arguing that our current economic model undervalues time (particularly ‘discretionary time’) and that we need to transition to a shorter standard working week in order to achieve a more socially and environmentally sustainable way of life.
I have a very soft spot for this argument and not just because I’m a lazy so-and-so who likes the idea of a shorter working week. I think the signs that we have come to persistently undervalue time are all around us.
Let me illustrate by using my new favourite toy – Google Ngrams. Despite the fact that Google launched this in 2010 and I wrote my master’s thesis on the history of language, somehow I’ve only just come across this tool.
Basically, for the uninitiated, Google have spent the last few years going round libraries scanning a significant proportion of all books published ever. With Google Ngrams they’ve now made it possible (even for technophobes like me) to search all this material for keywords or phrases and instantly produce a graph that shows how the frequency of usage of those words or phrases has changed over time. It’s a very quick and easy (if rather superficial) way of assessing how much purchase a concept has at any given moment in time.
So I used my new favourite toy to create a graph that plots how frequently the two phrases “leisure time” and “quality time” have appeared since 1950. Interestingly, the graph shows that “leisure time” peaked around 1975 and has been in steady decline ever since and “quality time”, having scarcely been extant as a concept prior to 1975, has been steadily on the up ever since. (My rationale for measuring the usage of “quality time” is that its rise in popularity as a phrase strikes me as being a symptom of the fact that, in the modern world, the idea of spending any quantity of time on non-money earning activities is seen as a bit odd. This may well be a flawed rationale, but this is after all my blog, so my reasoning wins.)
Now, while I am aware of the limitations of my new toy as an academically rigorous tool of enquiry, I am nonetheless won over by its ability to produce the result that fits my hypothesis (that we persistently undervalue time; that this is primarily a result of the fact that we have developed an overly money-orientated culture, particularly since the neo-liberal revolution of the 70s and 80s; and that public awareness of this issue is one the rise) pretty much regardless of what phrase I put in.
OK, enough graphs, I’ll put away my toy now.
The real point is that there’s nothing inevitable about the way we currently think about and value time. As the nef link I referenced earlier reminds us, the great liberal economist of the inter-war years, John Maynard Keynes, thought that by the twenty-first century, most people would only need to work fifteen hours a week.
A few decades later, another great liberal economist, JK Galbraith, argued in his book The Affluent Society that the problem of production had essentially been solved (at least in America/the ‘developed’ world). Now that our basic needs were met (or at least capable of being met), the question was simply how we would choose to distribute the wealth our economies were generating and what balance we would choose to strike between increased consumption and increased leisure time. Galbraith was (and would be even more so today) appalled by the way we’ve answered both of those questions (or rather failed to even think about them very seriously and just careered blindly down a patently dead-ended path).
The thing is, it’s not just the poor who suffer as a result of growing wealth inequality and an undervaluation of time – as an increasing number of academics and thinkers across multiple different disciplines agree, it’s all of us. (See Richard Wilkinson’s TED talk on ‘How Economic Inequality Harms Societies’ and Joe Stiglitz’s compelling, if rather tediously didactic book, The Price of Inequality, for more on this).
Several of the contributors to the nef book talk about the benefits to the individual, to society and to the environment of adopting a slower pace of life. Despite the slightly off-puttingly utopian, hippy-ish overtones of this argument, I think it’s fundamentally a valid point (and not just because I’m a fan of test match cricket and Wagner operas, which are probably two of the most time-consuming, slow-paced hobbies a man can enjoy).
I would argue that redressing the balance between work and leisure time is part of a much bigger shift we need to make in terms of how we live. What we need to develop, individually and collectively, is an ethos of moderation. An ethos that says:
- Working 30 hours a week rather than 50 is OK.
- My five-year-old laptop that still does the job but isn’t quite as swish as an ipad doesn’t yet need to be replaced and thrown on the rubbish pile.
- I don’t need to eat meat at least once a day. Two to three times a week would be plenty.
- My girlfriend doesn’t need a diamond necklace for her next birthday. A less expensive, more thoughtful present will make her love me just as much. (I’ll admit I haven’t actually run this one by her, but I’m quietly confident she knew she wasn’t getting a diamond necklace anyway.)
Essentially, increased leisure time is not just good because it means we all have more time to do whatever we want (great as that sounds). It would also help rebalance our economy and reduce unemployment (surely it’s better for everyone to work 30 hours a week rather than half the population work 60 hours a week and half work zero, which I acknowledge is not quite what happens at the moment, but you get the point).
And perhaps most importantly, it would help wean us off our most dangerous collective habit: over-consumption (in every sense). With less money and more time to spend it, we would all (arguably) make very different choices as consumers. Like learning to cook with fresh ingredients rather than living off take-aways and chicken kievs. Or choosing to mark the start of a new Premiership season by organising a game of footie with friends rather than by buying a new, even bigger plasma screen TV to watch it on.
Choices, in other words, that would benefit our own health and wellbeing as well as that of society and the planet.