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Rushing To Save Time

Time has become a scarce commodity. Everyone wants more of it. The refrain ‘If only I had more time’ echoes around offices and homes around the western world. All over the world people are working longer and longer hours, struggling to fit more and more into every day. Symptoms include jabbing the ‘door close’ button on lift doors to save the two to four seconds required for it to do it on its own, and an inability to do one thing at a time, so that every journey becomes a phone call opportunity.

All over the globe, there has been a massive increase in sales of laptops and mobile phones (with a hands-free set so that you can do something else at the same time); and we wonder how we ever managed without remote controls and e-mail. We live in an instant. We yearn for the slower pace of life we remember in the dim and distant past, but enthusiastically sign up for e-mail, instant messaging services, and even time management classes. The result is parents with a lack of quality time to spend with their children, and surveys showing that working couples are seeing less and less of each other, and that rows over time spent on domestic chores and child care are becoming a major source of marital discord. The idea of doing nothing has become terrifying.

Like any commodity that has become scarce, time has become a battleground. In what is supposed to be the world of the consumer, firms are stealing time from customers. It is now perfectly acceptable to be asked to hold the instant the phone is answered. This saves the company time, but costs you time. We are engaged in a constant, subtle war over time.

Of course, there is a class dimension to the rush culture. One of the biggest transitions of the past few decades has been to take the previous relationship between time and status – the rich had lots of spare time, the poor had little – and reverse it. While bankers in the City are now at their desks at 7am, in the good old days ‘bankers’ hours’ meant 10am till 4pm with a decent lunch break. Moreover, to be seen to have time to spare is a sign of low status; when arranging lunch, it is not done to be available too soon. Similarly, being late is moving from being a sign of rudeness to a sign of status.

A two-tier time society is gradually being built, with money-rich, time poor on one level, and the money-poor, time-rich on the other. The rich are working longer and longer hours in order to compete with each other. At the same time, they are employing others – cleaners, nannies, gardeners, and fast food outlets – in order to allow them to work all the time. Meanwhile, more and more of us are putting ourselves on the treadmill of constant activity, taking on an increasingly heavy workload, and never stopping for a moment to ask ourselves why.