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2018-04-01

A brief reflection on the value paradox of time

In practical terms, time is linear. And it passes. Because it has alternative uses, different ways of spending, it is capable of analysis under the concept of opportunity costs. It can also be related to human life and psychology as a yardstick, by determining its value in terms of one’s willingness to wait. Especially under risk and ambiguity.
 
While time passes, it is in itself without alternative. If we “save” it, this sounds as if we could deposit it on a “time account” – but it is never the same time we “save” and “spend.” There is no guarantee that what we save today will still be there tomorrow. Or at all. Much of our sense of time relies on the assumption that we will still be there – tomorrow or in a year or five.
 
The sociology of time is another dimension. In all likelihood, Neanderthals did not separate work and leisure, thus had no schedule for collecting berries or hunting mammoths, and therefore time was not managed, but its use was based on current needs as part of a persistent struggle for survival. Competing uses of time, and its partition and separation for different uses is a much more recent phenomenon. Already circa 29 BCE, though hardly for the first time, Virgil’s observation appears: sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus. There had been countless similar admonitions against sloth and procrastination, in the aphorisms of Hippocrates, come to fame latinized as ars longa, vita brevis, Horace’s carpe diem and Plato’s Phaedo’s (64a4) adoption by Tertullian (Apologeticus XXXIII) as the Christian memento mori, its relative conceptual novelty was likely due to literacy more than it was to newly broken ground. But, yes, suddenly, time management became an individual as well as a social necessity, at the latest during the transition from the medieval to the modern era that brought about development of watch technology to measure passage of time, thus made its role and observation independent of natural time. It was the foundation of the industrial revolution, of its separation of labor and specialization. Now, coordinated contributions by distinct and separate individuals became synchronized and regulated with regard to time – the “deadline” in all its pervasive forms was born, though it had to have been in existence far earlier. At the same time, religious reforms brought on by Calvinism translated the material rewards of increased efficiency into signs of divine favor and created theological underpinnings for the values of modern capitalism. Because of this nexus (and its multitude of implications), higher material standard of living seems to correlate, at least empirically, with increased scarcity of time. Since time was managed, mankind transitioned from subsistence economics into a standard of wealth economics.
 
There is no evidence, however, of an inevitable nexus between evanescence of leisure and affluence. Though it may seem that time pressure is the price we pay for growth and prosperity. But this is a fallacy: while the time resources of poor people may be valued less, poverty engenders more pressing shortages of time than affluence, not least because the forms they bring about are more inescapable.
 
Time shortage under affluence has different causes:  l’embarras du choix. The stress of too many options, too much choice, too much diversity. The risk of a “wrong” – or, almost as dissatisfying – a “suboptimal” choice in terms of ratings, rankings or other externally imposed preferences is much greater than in earlier, simpler times with fewer choices. At the same time, social media create pressure by showing us all the exciting things other people are doing right now and that we appear to be missing out on. The need to make reviewable comparisons, decisions and choices constantly creates dissatisfaction of another kind than need.
 
Time is a resource and its valuation just as important as that of any other – perhaps more so. Time is not money, but it can have monetary value, beyond mathematical trivia. To have time has become a status symbol. “Important people have time.” They are in a position to delegate secondary choices and lower priorities which in turn frees up their available time resources. As a result, the most successful person is not the one that spends the longest hours at the office but the one with a work-life balance that wraps up his or her agenda in time for golf, social, charitable or artistic engagements. Or even for sleep and rest. It may be a 21st century standard of success to show sufficiency of time, this scarcest of resources of the hoi polloi. Yet, at the same time, to some and indeed many, the times when being richer meant working less are so yesterday.

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