Time and Temporal Inequality

May 31, 2018

Editorial note: This post is Chapter 30 of Brian’s book Credo. You can read and learn more about his book here.

Temporal inequality is a little noticed feature of our society. Poor people wait for things – the well-off are waited on. Temporal inequality is crucial to understanding people’s time choices.

The typologies for households may also help to map particular kinds of social and other problems in particular kinds of areas and the infrastructure and services that will be needed in an area. For example, it seems obvious that a family, and even more single parents, with young children are going to be struggling with time pressure because the demands of childcare, housework and earning enough money to pay the bills all has to be done in the 24/7 week.

In recent years, much has been made about what is called the “work-life balance”. To understand this issue properly we really need to know both what kind of household type people experiencing this problem are in. It is obviously not single elderly people living on their own, who may have many problems but not this one, because they are not in paid work. It is also obvious that, when human beings allocate their time between different activities, there is not a simple choice between paid work and leisure. We allocate time in a very complex choice between paid work; multiple kinds of household work; travel to work time; care work; physiological overheads (eating and sleeping)… and leisure if we are lucky.

Economics tends to focus on our welfare with the assumption that that this arises from the satisfaction that we get from what we buy in the shops. However, there is a slightly different, but arguably more relevant idea, that well-being arises from a broader range of issues and life contexts. Absolutely central to well-being is the quality and quantity of our time and the conditions in which we are forced to allocate it. (Davey, Pathologies and Policies of Time, 2001)

In this connection, inequality has not only a monetary dimension, it has a time dimension too.

Temporal inequality and well being

As social critic Ivan Illych once put it, powerful social groups have an energy guzzling “well-sped” life style. With speed they get more things sold (higher turnover), they produce things “more cheaply” (in money terms – the energy use is not cheap to the environment) and they get to the scenes of battles first and shoot quicker than their rivals.

High speeds for all mean that everybody has less time for himself as the whole society spends a growing slice of its time budget on moving people. Vehicles running over the critical speed not only tend to impose inequality, they also inevitably establish a self-serving industry that hides an inefficient system of locomotion under apparent technological sophistication… From our limited information it appears that everywhere in the world, after some vehicle broke the speed barrier of 15 mph, time scarcity related to traffic began to grow. After industry had reached this threshold of per capita output, transport made of man a new kind of waif: a being constantly absent from a destination he cannot reach on his own but must attain within the day. By now, people work a substantial part of every day to earn the money without which they could not even get to work… (Illich, 1973)

In their consumption the rich are well sped too. Consumption takes time – a car needs to be cleaned, maintained, repaired, and refilled. A large house and possessions likewise requires more cleaning, looking after, and security arrangements. The rich, as well as the poor, only have 24 hours a day. But they have servants, secretaries, chauffeurs, gamekeepers, estate managers, personal assistants, researchers, au pairs, nannies, housekeepers, doormen and residential schools to send their children to.

If a lot of us cannot keep up it is partly because synchronising lives as members of the underclass, with the time needs of our well sped betters, becomes more difficult and burdensome as they become what can be appropriately described as more manic.

The well sped elite of a well sped society wants its service class to be flexible with their labour times. The worse jobs are not only worse in pay – they tend to be inferior in their temporal features. As a general rule people do not choose to do night shift work. They take on such work when their life circumstances leave them little other choice. A German study concludes:

Shift work is not voluntarily chosen. Coming to terms with the bad work conditions is necessary to survive. It is the material pressure to feed one’s family, to pay off debts, to finance housing costs, or to save for a house, that forces people to accept the conditions of shift work. Alheit P. Dausien B and Flörken-Erdbrink quoted in (Kasten, 2001, p. 150. Author’s translation).

There is plenty of evidence that it is working women that find time pressures hardest of all to manage. The study by D’Alicia and Cattaneo mentioned earlier shows that Catalonian men work more in the market – on average 3.16 hours a day compared to 1.5 hours a day for women. However, women do more unpaid work – 3.99 hours a day compared to 1.6 hours a day for men. Overall, it will not surprise women readers that Catalonian women work on average 1.09 hours a day more than men. Although this gender inequality in workloads is changing, and is less among younger age groups, the work burden for women in the 25-44 age group is “almost unsustainable” and women have to sacrifice at least one hour personal care and/or leisure to carry the greater burden than men.

Nor can this situation be resolved using the technology of what are, supposedly, “labour saving devices” in the household. If anything the reverse is the case. Microwave ovens, washers and driers, food processors, disposable napkins and purchased childcare do not reduce unpaid work time. They increase its intensity because the technical changes generate new activities and standards. This increases the level of psychological stress at the same time as it increases the energy consumption used in, or making, the devices and products. If there are an increasing number of single person households, then this is even more the case. However, household arrangements like co-housing could help a lot in resolving some of these issues. (D’Alisa & Cattaneo, 2011)

In the absence of adequate household arrangements to lift the burden, a woman’s work is never done. Women’s perceived double responsibility to their family, as well as to an employer, is further complicated when work times are required to be more flexible to suit the irregular needs of employers. This makes it difficult to co-ordinate with family and domestic commitments. When the opening and closing times of schools, childcare and other facilities do not match up together, it all gets very complicated. There is a continual struggle to make ad hoc arrangements with relatives and friends to collect the children from school. Low paid shop workers, who are mostly women, live in a continual “time dilemma” trying to relate work times to other key times, like when child care is available. Time planning becomes a major stress in its own right.

Even though people may be employed “part time”, when that part-time is moved around to different times of the day and week it is even more difficult to establish a manageable routine. I know from my past experience that working a three day week in a five day world was very difficult to manage satisfactorily. Full timers wanted to organise meetings on the days that I was supposed not to be working. By turning up to meetings on those days, and then taking time off somewhere else in the week, I ended up with a less than satisfactory arrangement. My “free time” ended up fragmented and unpredictable. I may have had as much “quantitatively” but it was not as usable. It was thus, not the same “qualitatively”.

In the underclass, what often happens is that people who cannot manage to synchronise their lives to keep up with the pace and routine (or flexible availability) required by the synchronisers of the economy end up with no activity at all. They end up with plenty of time – they end up unemployed.

Social psychologists have confirmed by research what, to many people, will be obvious: too much time pressure leads to stress but too little time pressure leads to boredom. (Freedman & Edwards, 1988)

Psychological studies (again quoted in Levine) show that the unhappiest people of all are those who are under no time pressure at all. A psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi kept track of a number of people with a radio telephone and asked them repeatedly what they were doing and how they were feeling. Those who were occupied by a moderate amount of activity gave the most positive reports of their feelings, those who were trying to do several things at once were stressed. However, those who were doing nothing at all, had no feeling of time flow and seldom reported that they felt well. This latter group were the unhappiest. That’s another dimension of well-being that you won’t find in the economic text books. (Levine, 2001, pp. 275-276)

From this perspective, the experience of unemployment is a psychological nightmare for many people. After they first become unemployed, and after, typically, they have spent their redundancy money redecorating the house, the problems for newly unemployed people begin to set in. Relationships with other family members are put under strain by the changed interpersonal time patterns. More time may be spent together with a spouse at home, for example, but with less to do together so that friction occurs.

Where repeated attempts to find a job fail, the unemployed person often loses a future horizon. It is typical too, of unemployed people to slip out of clock time into event time. They live when something is happening and/or when they can see other people. This is often the evenings. They start to get up late and go to bed late – living in a later cycle.

Inequality expresses itself therefore, not only in money but in time spent waiting. At the top of society people are waited on. They are waited on by their drivers, they are waited on at home and in hotels, in the office and in restaurants – so that time is easier to manage. A large part of the fragmented time in the underclass is spent in waiting for. The lower in the social hierarchy you are the more you wait for transport (for buses); in employment department; social security and housing benefit queues; at post office counters; in doctors’ surgeries and on waiting lists for operations (when one cannot pay for private treatment); in hospitals on mental health orders; in police cells; courts and in prisons.

Socially excluded people are often spatially distant from the centres of power – something that has temporal implications. To get from your village or your part of the city by bus to visit a relevant government office may be a time commitment that you can ill afford. To get to a good supermarket selling cheap food may take too much time, so you buy in the more expensive corner shop with less choice. Thus, even though nothing much happens in the lives of socially excluded people, the time they live is still committed time and it is still a time that is hemmed in by constraints that reduce life quality.

Despite unemployment, or perhaps because of the lack of an imposed work time rhythm, socially disadvantaged people tend to pass their days fragmented in event-time. This different quality of time in and for the underclass is incredibly important to understanding and explains why it is often so difficult for public and voluntary agencies to synchronise with poor people and form trusting and dependable relationships with them.

No doubt, to the kind of incurably comfortable person whose opinion counts among those in government, the underclass are feckless and unreliable and so deserve the discipline of the market to get them to sort themselves out and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. A closer look, however, reveals why it is almost inevitable that poor people have such a chaotic lifestyle.

It is difficult for them not to have one. They do not have the resources in money; available non-fragmented time; relationships with people who are themselves not living chaotic lives and secure living environments to make dependability possible.

 reproduced by permission of Werner Küstenmacher, Vnr Verlag für die Deutsche Wirtschaft aG
reproduced by permission of Werner Küstenmacher, Vnr Verlag für die Deutsche Wirtschaft aG

Brian Davey

I now live in Nottingham in semi-retirement. This means doing much the same as when I was 64 but with a state pension and tiny private pension as well. In 1970 I got a 1st in Economics at Nottingham University – and then in 1974 an M.Phil. for a thesis on a Marxist approach to the economic development of India. This led to a varied career working with mainly community projects both in the UK and abroad. In 2003 John Jopling of Feasta followed a suggestion of Richard Douthwaite's and invited me to a yearly group discussion by the sea – at Rossbeigh in Kerry. I have been going virtually every year since then and have spent much of my spare time involved in the ecological and economics discussions of Feasta, particularly in its climate work. After Richard's passing I stepped into part of a teaching role that he had had at Dublin City University teaching on a degree in Religion and Ecology. This teaching led, in turn, to this book.

Tags: social inequality, time