Time has lost its value – how can we get it back?

Time has lost its value – how can we get it back?

“All workers have the right to rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours,” establishes Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And when it says ‘leisure’, it is referring to free time, time without commitments, be they work-related or social.

(Roberto Martín)

Time is like a box of screws. Pure merchandise. It has been that way ever since clocks came down from the bell towers and entered the factories.

We sell our time to our bosses, we use it to pay the bills, for our food and little luxuries. We do not lose time, we waste it or sell it for less than it is worth. At times, in return for inadequate wages. At others, in exchange for precarious, irregular hours of work that are difficult to reconcile with our personal and family lives.

The latest International Labour Organization (ILO) survey on working conditions clearly shows how the post-crisis labour market has confused ‘flexibility’ with submission. The number of atypical contracts – those with fragmented, irregular and discontinuous work schedules – is now almost as high as the number of standard contracts (in Europe they account for 41 per cent), and ‘unsocial hours’ – those worked at night or on weekends – are imposed without discussion. Time has its lost value. And no one knows how it ended up in the bargain bin. Two boxes of screws for the price of one.

“Precarity in relation to time is rising and is manifested by the increasing inability to predict your working hours. People have very little control over their time, they can’t plan their lives and it affects their sleep, their eating patterns, their health, and increases the level of conflict within the family,” explains Tomás Cano, sociologist and researcher at the Goethe University of Frankfurt.

Six out of ten European workers cannot choose or change their hours, reports the ILO survey. A fourth continue with their work at home, during their free time, it also says. Technology has erased the boundaries between work and personal life once and for all, and has made time even cheaper.

“We are working on our mobile phones, on our laptops and tablets more and more. The lines between when work begins and ends are so blurred that we are always caught up in it,” warns José Varela, head of digitisation at the Spanish trade union centre UGT. At the extreme are the digital platforms like Uber or Deliveroo where “the level of availability is absolute”, insists Varela, “I don’t have working hours, because my whole life is work.”

Another example is the ‘zero-hour’ contracts popularised in the United Kingdom by firms such as Amazon or McDonald’s. They do not specify the number of hours, or days, or shifts. The worker has to put life on hold, awaiting a phone call. It is either that or unemployment, argue their advocates – an unfair choice.

“All workers have the right to rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours,” establishes Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And when it says leisure, it is referring to free time, time without commitments, be they work-related or social.

In other words, take the 24 hours in the day and deduct the time spent on paid and unpaid work (such as household chores and family care), personal care (including rest, food and hygiene), and the time you need to get places. The time left over is free time. But how much is left?

Unequal time

Time is the only resource to which we all have access, for free and in the same amount. But the use we are able to put it to and the control we have over it is not equal. Cristina García, sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, establishes four categories:

-  Those who have a lot of time and a lot of money. These are few and far between.

-  Those who have a lot of money and little time. These are able to buy the time they do not have, by delegating domestic or care work to others.

-  Those who have a lot of time and not much money, such as retired and unemployed people. Such time is, in fact, undesirable, as they do not have the means to enjoy it.

-  Those who have little money and little time. For these, the time deficit is total. They are permanently in the red.

“The last scenario has become the most common in recent years,” says the sociologist. “And it is not just a matter of how much time we have but the quality of that time. Having time for yourself is not the same as ‘contaminated time’ that’s taken up by your mobile phone, your work or your kids. People need to have autonomy and control over their time.”

There are a number of predisposing factors when it comes to entering the fourth category: being young, having a low level of education, being single, having children (parents with young children work between one and two hours a day more than others) and, above all, being a woman.

“Structurally, women have always been condemned to time poverty, especially since the moment when we began taking on roles in the public sphere without making much of a change to our roles in the private sphere,” says Maria Ángeles Durán, a researcher at the High Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), specialising in unpaid work.

Women still take on 65 per cent of the unpaid work, according to research at Oxford University, and although there is starting to be a better gender balance in the distribution of unpaid domestic and care work (women took on 85 per cent in the 1960s), they continue to dedicate an average of 4.24 hours a day to unpaid chores. Men spend 2.15 hours on them. Women spend 657 hours a year preparing food, and men 127. Women have four to five hours of free time a day and men five to five and a half hours. The inequality is still clear.

In 2011, global marketing research firm Nielsen conducted a survey among women from 21 countries about their lives. All of them perceived a higher level of equality, but also admitted to suffering from much more stress due to the “double workload”. And, as Durán warns, it could get worse.“The need for care work is going to increase rather than decrease, as the number of aged people is growing and our public services are inadequate. In the future, we are going to see the emergence of new social classes, such as a ‘caretariat’, dedicated to around-the-clock care, 365 days a year, and if a solution isn’t found, they will all be women.”

Humanising time

“Our public administrations can take action. The first thing that needs to be done is to place the issue on the agenda for public debate,” says Álvaro Porro, social economy commissioner at Barcelona City Council. This institution led the way by creating, in 2004, a Time Councillorship, tasked with humanising working times and facilitating work-life balance through a Time Pact, which was renewed in 2017.

It includes adapting public services to family schedules – social services, day-care centres, support services for carers – as well as raising consciousness among companies and rewarding good practices. That is the difficult part. As the commissioner points out, “The Time Pact is voluntary. No obligation can be placed on companies, a change in the legislation at state or European level would be needed for that.”

According to José María Fernández-Crehuet, a member of the Commission for the Rationalisation of Working Hours in Spain, firms can take many measures to make work ‘genuinely’ more flexible, that is, promoting a better work-life balance through “more compact work schedules, free-time banks, telework. Anything that improves the work-life balance improves productivity,” he insists.

The Spanish trade union movement is pressing for a more ambitious reduction of working time. “The first measure would be to reduce it from 40 to 32 hours a week, with eight hours training,” says José Varela of the UGT. Then, he says, we should take advantage of the benefits of automation to work less, so that our working lives occupy less than 40 per cent of our biological lives.

The idea is appealing, but it still doesn’t resolve the issue of unpaid work, says Durán, underlining the need, in addition to a Time Pact, for a ‘social pact’ between men and women.

Time for what?

A fourth of all Europeans complain that they do not have enough time, but also admit to spending up to three hours a day watching television. According to recent surveys (by Spain’s National Institute for Statistics, or INE) we have cut the time we dedicate to our social lives and increased that spent on digital devices (social media, internet, gaming). Our time is not only sold cheaply, it is also spent poorly.

“There are occasions when our time is limited by factors beyond our control, but there are others when we ourselves lose control over it. We manage our time poorly,” warns social psychologist Nuria Codina.

The problem, according to Jaime Cuenca, a philosopher and researcher specialising in leisure and human development, is that we do not understand what leisure means. We haven’t been educated for that. “So we subordinate it to the world of work”. Free time is seen as time left over to recover or to disconnect from work. “It is not seen as a liberating time.”

Quite the opposite. The little free time we have has also become more fragile, more fragmented, more precarious. It is reduced to fleeting moments dotted throughout the day, when we watch a series on the bus journey to work or check social media on the way back. We cannot really even talk of leisure, as such, but ‘short bursts of leisure’.

“In the same way that we no longer have a job for life, we no longer have hobbies for life. Developing skills in a world of bubbles that are constantly bursting is simply not possible.” says Cuenca.

But we still need leisure – the traditional kind that does not come in short bursts. “Free time is very beneficial, but only if we use it discerningly and thoughtfully,” warns the social psychologist. “Many people, when they have time, only end up doing what is offered by consumer society. They do not choose either.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.