Work: the thief of time

by Emrys Westacott

The coronavirus pandemic has massively disrupted the working lives of millions of people. For those who have lost their jobs, income, or work-related benefits, this can mean serious hardship and anxiety. For others, it has meant getting used to new routines and methods of working. For all of us, though, it should prompt reflection on how we think about work in general–both as a curse and as a blessing. Here, I want to focus on how work relates to time.

In ‘The Superannuated Man,’ Charles Lamb writes,

that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s times, not his.

This is a basic and obvious reason that many people resent having to go to work. Work takes up time, and time, as many sages have observed, is supremely valuable, irreplaceable, priceless. It is precious because we each know that we are granted only a limited amount of it.

Time is, in the words of Ben Franklin, “the stuff life is made of.” So insofar as work consumes your time, it consumes your life. If your work is what you really want to do, this is not a problem. But if much of the time when you are working–whether you are selling your services to someone else for an agreed number of hours, or drudging away at home–you would really prefer to be doing something else, then your working hours represent an enormous sacrifice. You are using up your supply of a decidedly finite, non-renewable resource.

One might think that the great increase in average life expectancies over the past two centuries, combined with the reduction in working hours, would make people less resentful about the portion of their lives they have to spend working.[1] There seems no reason to suppose this is the case, though. Several reasons for this suggest themselves. People today have far greater recreational opportunities than they did in the past. They also have higher expectations regarding how much leisure time they will have and what they will be able to do with it. Possibly the decline in religious faith has played a part too. If you believe that this life is merely a vestibule to an infinitely long afterlife, or that it is one of a series of incarnations, lost time may matter less. If, on the other hand, you believe that we go round once and that’s it, those lost hours–or years–will seem more significant and be regretted more keenly.

But in modern industrial society, the relationship between people’s attitude to work and their mindset regarding time is complex. On the one hand, work sucks up our time and we resent that. On the other hand, modernization ushered in an obsession with productivity and efficiency that leads us to view any time not used productively as time wasted; so we invert the order of resentment and start fretting about our idle hours. This outlook is brilliantly caricatured and critiqued in Michael Ende’s fantasy novel Momo in which a strange army of grey men in grey suits persuade the adults in a community to “save” time by giving up any unproductive activities (such as relaxing, hanging out with friends, or visiting relatives). The men in grey, also described as “time thieves,” personify the work ethic applied with a vengeance. But as the people “waste” less and “save” more time, they become more miserable and less social, and the whole culture of their community becomes increasingly sterile. One of the insights that Ende’s novel conveys is that it is possible to voluntarily enter and remain inside the productivity trap, obsessed with the efficient use of one’s time, while simultaneously lamenting what one has thereby lost.

Saving time is, of course, one of the main motives behind technological innovation. Mechanical devices can also make a task easier and produce better results, but their time-saving potential is a major part of their appeal.

In the workplace, the reason for wanting to save time is obvious. Time is money. Reducing wasted time means an increase in productivity, and therefore, it is hoped, in profits. But of course, this is a benefit that goes to the employer, not to the worker. The point is memorably made by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, in the scene where a machine is introduced that will allow workers on the production line to eat their lunch while continuing to work. (Predictably, the machine malfunctions, and a hapless Charlie has soup tipped over him, a pie pushed into his face, and an out-of-control revolving corn cob threaten to take out his teeth–all of which underscores the fact that this time-saving innovation has nothing to do with the well-being of the worker.)

In the home, things are different. Here, labor-saving technologies like central heating, gas and electric ovens, washing machines, dryers, vacuum cleaners (especially the robot kind), food processors, and crockpots have greatly reduced the hours people have to spend on housework. (I pointedly do not include dishwashers in the list since I belong to that despised minority who remain skeptical over whether dishwashers really save much time, especially if people insist on rinsing every item almost clean before placing it in the machine.) The reduction in hours spent on housework is offset somewhat by adjustments in what we consider acceptable or desirable. Washing machines reduce the time spent doing laundry, but also induce us to wash our clothes more often. But the importance to us of saving time on work at home is indicated by the vast array of gadgets and devices that are sold to consumers with the promise of speeding up some task. Indeed, the kitchen drawers of the time-conscious modern individual should contain at least some of these items (italics in the accompanying ad blurb is mine):

  •  vegetable chopper (“Tired of wasting time blowing your nose and blotting your eyes every time you need to dice an onion?” runs the ad. “This chopper will do the work for you and put an end to all the tears.”)
  • kale and greens stripper (“Remove the tough stems from kale and herbs in no time….”)
  • strawberry huller (“With this huller you’ll be able to tackle a whole basket in the time you’d have been able to do just a handful, were you using a paring knife.”)
  • multislicer (“we hear from consumers again and again that chopping is one of their biggest time sucks in the kitchen…..” etc.[2]

The list could be extended indefinitely. Breadmakers that free you from five minutes of kneading; five-blade herb scissors that knock fifteen seconds of chopping herbs (and only add twenty-five seconds of additional cleaning time); and of course, Queen of the Countertop in the 2020s, the Instant Pot (“solely responsible for saving Americans millions of hours in the kitchen…..”)

Better to waste money than to waste time!

The pandemic has, of course, caused a sharp decline in consumer spending. For some people this is a necessity due to reduced income, actual or anticipated. For others it is more due to reduced opportunity. And at least in the latter case, it may prompt an appreciation of what one easily do without. Obviously, I’m not suggesting, in the middle of strawberry season, that one can achieve the good life without a strawberry huller. But crises quickly turn necessities into desirables, and desirables into dispensibles.

The pandemic will also, one assumes, give some people a fresh appreciation of the value of free time. Right now there are millions not working who, quite understandably, are keen to get back to work. But I hope that, in the long run, the pandemic will prompt a general reconsideration of the relative values we attach to work, money, and time. For to say it again, time is one of the few things we have that is utterly irreplaceable.  Because as Ben Franklin pithily observes: “lost time is never found again.”

[1] In 1870 average life expectancy in all parts of the world was below 40 years; in 2019 it was over 70 years in all parts of the world except Africa. []

[2] The advertisement text is taken from Williams Sonoma’s “Eight tools that save time of your most mundane kitchen tasks,”