Time to consume and consuming time

Author: Álvaro Porro

Núria, our shelves are full of books we’ll never have time to read, and collections of DVDs we’ll never watch. The wardrobe’s full of clothes we’ve hardly ever worn… You have to accept it: the time we haven’t got can’t be collected and stored on shelves.

In 1930, J.M. Keynes, one of the most influential economists of all time, predicted that by the beginning of the 21st century the working week would be reduced to 15 hours, as we wouldn’t need so much time to earn enough to cover our material needs. If a worker produces almost twice as much as in 1970 in the same number of hours, we could work half as much and produce the same amount. However, in the US in 2006, the average number of hours worked per person had increased compared with 1970. In recent decades, instead of using part of the increase in productivity to reduce the time people work, as had happened previously, among other reasons thanks to the strength of worker movements (at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the normal working week was 60 hours or more), it has been used to increase production, raise profits, lower prices and, consequently, increase consumption.

In the US, which is an outstanding example of this model, people work an average of 200 to 300 hours a year more than in Europe, and one worker in four has no holidays, as there is no legal obligation for employers to grant them. Levels of consumption are among the highest in the world, leading to a situation where there is an abundance of material wealth and people are starved of time, according to some authors and the ‘Take Back Your Time’ movement[1]. Various problems are associated with this model, including social problems (children who have no parental guidance much of the time, families who do not share routine activities, etc.), health problems (Americans are 50% more likely to suffer from stress-related conditions than Europeans) and environmental problems (according to one study, if Americans worked a similar number of hours to Europeans, their ecological footprint would be 15-30% smaller).[2] However, efforts are being made to extend it still further, as seen in 2008, when there was an unsuccessful attempt to increase the maximum working week from 48 to 65 hours). Fortunately, there are also moves in the opposite direction. In the UK a recent proposal defended the social and environmental need and the economic viability of the 21-hour working week[3].

In Spain on average, people work more hours than in the rest of Europe, among other reasons because overtime is very common (65% of male employees work overtime). Admittedly, the problem is not the same for everyone: as a result of the recession many people are working few hours or none at all, while others are working more hours (often for the same salary) to make up for colleagues who have lost their jobs. Apart from the number of hours worked, many other factors have to be taken into account when we analyse the working week, including the type of work, time spent travelling and inequality between sectors or sexes (women have added employment outside the home in addition to their usually greater domestic and family responsibilities). There is some debate about statistics on the use of time. In the Basque Country, where the most work has been done on producing figures, they concluded that in a decade the trend had been towards a slight increase in the time devoted to paid employment and physiological needs, such as eating and sleeping, while less time was spent on unpaid (domestic) work and leisure. The trend affects women most, as they have less time for leisure and social relations and spend an average of an hour a day more on work (paid and domestic).[4]

‘Time famine’ is not related exclusively to work, however. It is also connected with social relations, leisure activities and tourism, education, the growing distances between people’s homes and the areas in which they shop, rest and enjoy leisure activities (second homes, for example), widely scattered social and leisure networks, etc.

This affects other areas of our lives. For example, we don’t sleep enough. 19% of Spaniards sleep less than six hours a day, work being given as the reason in 75% of cases. There has also been a reduction in the time we spend buying and preparing food, which is reflected in the way we eat (the time we spend shopping for food each week has been falling by 5 minutes every year)[5]. The relationship between time and consumption can be illustrated with a simple test: ‘let me look inside your pantry and your fridge and I’ll tell you the pace you live at’. A life of heavy, irregular working schedules often involves eating out at odd times and having little food in the house, buying a lot of ready-made and even pre-cooked meals, eating fried food rather than roasted or stewed dishes and little food from the base of the nutritional pyramid (rice, pulses, vegetables, grain) and consuming a lot of additional items (drinks, desserts, cold meats, sauces, etc.). Our patterns of consumption are the cause and the result of our patterns of living, within which organising (or not organising) our time is a key consideration. Changes in our consumption habits imply changes in our pace of life and different ways of distributing our time, and vice versa.

We have based our analysis of the relationship on four ideas:

  1. Smart consumption means spending less time on things you don’t want to do: I don’t do a big shop at the hypermarket any more. I always ended up buying lots of sweets, getting annoyed with the queues and wasting time packing bags.
  2. Smart consumption means spending more time on the things you choose (food is the one most frequently mentioned): Now I spend more time preparing food. When the ecological vegetable box arrives you have to plan what you’re going to do with each item: make stock, purée, etc. But I really enjoy it; I think the change has been a good thing. Time spent preparing food is never wasted.
    For some people spending more time preparing food involves an effort and they use different strategies to cope: I find it hard to spend time thinking about these things, even though I’ve made it a duty for myself. Convenience is still too important for me.
  3. You find benefits associated with changes in the use of time implied by smart consumption: Feeling fit enough to walk or ride a bike; more self-satisfaction and better personal relations because you have time to chat, relax, learn or spend time with the children; environmental and economic benefits and even moral benefits, because you are acting in accordance with your values. Fewer problems with space and keeping the house tidy, less time dealing with waste, less expenditure (and less dependence on work). I don’t know anything about the compulsory vehicle inspection, changing the oil in my car, or when you need to replace your tyres; I don’t think whether I ought to get a new car and I don’t know where I could park near my home.
  4. It involves changes to your timetable, a different kind of planning and new routines. As some people comment, it sometimes means overcoming the inertia of following the majority: I think it’s a matter of getting organised and changing your way of thinking. I go and collect my basket on Tuesday evenings, I take a turn preparing baskets once a month, and every Sunday morning I go to the vegetable gardens. These things have become part of my weekly routine. We’ve got so used to them that we don’t even think about them anymore.

[1] This is a movement that tries to raise awareness of the consequences of ‘time famine’ and proposes policies to reverse the situation. www.timeday.org.

[2] Rosnick, David; Weisbrot, Mark. Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? A Comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption. Working document. Washington D.C. Center for Economic and Policy Research. 2006.

[3] 21 hours. Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century. New Economics Foundation, http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/21-hours.

[4] Encuesta de presupuestos de tiempo. 2003 (Análisis de resultados). Eustat.2003

[5] Food Consumption Panel: Resumen anual de la alimentación. 007. Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs.