Book and film review: Is time the new money?

Posted: November 22, 2011 in Books, Films
Tags: , , , , , ,

ClockWhen we talk about poverty; the prevalence of poverty, or about the poverty rate, these days we are usually referring to the accepted definition, which is invariably determined by income level.

The academic book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, authored by researchers at the Australian National University (plus one colleague in Finland) suggests that we should broaden that definition.

By remarkable coincidence, the message of the book is allegorised in the recent science fiction film In Time starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.

‘Discretionary Time’ starts with the hypothesis that time-poverty is more than just a figure of speech, it is real. There are people working well over 40 hours a week to make ends meet. They do succeed, and their household budget is in balance, but at the personal cost of most leisure time. Their discretion to do as they please in life is limited so they might as well be regarded as poor; they are no better off.

The majority of the book consists of empirical study which does confirm the hypothesis, and also an extended analysis on the effect that marriage and divorce have on people’s discretionary time (generally: marriage increases it while divorce decreases it disproportionately for women, in most countries).

This is troubling reading.

Over a century ago, the workers of the then-industrialising nations fought hard for a working day divided between “8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours leisure”. After this was achieved, the rise of large-scale leisure time had a significant impact on economic development, too, as people went out and spent money and also began to educate themselves and improve their knowledge and skills.

Today we find ourselves in a situation where poverty, narrowly defined by money, affects maybe 1 in 8 or 1 in 6 of the population, however time poverty (having to work more than 40 hours a week to make ends meet) affects 1 in 3 or 1 in 2 -and that’s in the rich world! Think of the people working 70- or 80-hour weeks in the EPZs of China and Southeast Asia and living, single in dormitories.

The only criticism I could make of the book is that it does not acknowledge the existence of people who work long hours but enjoy their work and wouldn’t work less even if they had the option. Human Resources people tell us that about a third of the workforce is ‘actively engaged’ with their jobs, so a significant minority. That may not be enough to willingly work more hours at the expense of one’s free time of course.

Which brings me to the film.

If any film captures the gestalt of 2011 and the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is In Time.

The conceit is that, at some indeterminate point in the future, all human beings become installed with a clock that counts down to the moment of death. Everyone gets one year of time on their 25th birthday but after that, they have to work for which they are paid extra ‘time’. It is not stated but pretty clear from the film that regular wages are not enough to keep an individual comfortably ahead of their count-down. Most people end up begging or stealing for extra time; in debt, essentially. The protagonist and his mother live with only one day’s credit; a hand-to-mouth existence.

The plot grows thicker: there is not upper limit on the amount of time a person can have and, sure enough, it turns out that there are restricted areas where a small number live with thousands of years of time; effectively immortal. Moreover it emerges that they intentionally restrict the supply to keep this state of affairs.

The analogy to the 99% movement, executive pay and so on is pretty clear.

It is a very thought-provoking film and well-acted too. It seems to support a Robin Hood tax solution, though you would have to call it a Bonnie and Clyde tax if you know the scene.

See also:

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