Time is the subject of numerous clichés. We all know that time is money and that many people are time-poor. Now time is becoming a major political issue. More and more specific political questions have a common thread running through them: the scarcity of time.
The pressures of modern life continue to eat into our available time and make it harder to lead a balanced, fulfilling life.
Time poverty was once a concern for investment bankers and lawyers working ridiculous hours. It's now an issue for ordinary working families.
Until the 1960s, the guiding story of modern western societies was material progress. National development and personal consumption dominated political discourse. Bitter memories of the deprivation of war and depression accentuated our national quest for economic growth and material comfort.
Since the late 1960s, the need to protect our environment and use natural resources sustainably has added a new layer to our guiding story. We still pursue material progress, but we are now conscious of the fact that the physical resources which underpin the satisfaction of our material wants are finite.
As we continue to grapple with the mounting challenges of climate change, resource depletion and water scarcity, a new layer is being added to our guiding story. That new layer is time and our capacity to sustain and nurture our human relationships. Time is the currency of relationships.
Everywhere we look, we find battles about time distribution at the heart of contemporary political controversies. The highly successful ACTU advertising campaign against the Howard Government's WorkChoices legislation is focused on time. The mum unable to look after her small children. The dad unable to coach his son's soccer team. While job security and loss of income have also figured prominently in the ACTU campaign, the central theme is work-family balance, where time is the critical ingredient.
Of all the Labor commitments announced since the 2004 election, the one that has generated the greatest public response is the promise to build child-care centres at primary schools and eliminate the dreaded "double drop-off". Hard-pressed parents struggling to get the children organised and get to work on time understand the importance of time more than most.
The never-ending small business battle against excessive regulation is essentially about time. The backlash against the GST among small businesses was driven by fear of losing Sunday afternoons.
Even debates about infrastructure often revolve around time. Cutting the time it takes for outer suburban dwellers to get to work, whether through new roads or better public transport, is a critical issue. Shortening a journey by 10 minutes provides a hard-pressed commuter with an extra hour-and-a-half of discretionary time every week.
Time is also a central theme in social policy. Carers need respite, some time to themselves when their lives are not completely dominated by the needs of a loved one. Some people have too much time and too little ability to fill it. The rapidly growing problem of loneliness among isolated older people is partly driven by a surfeit of time. Many of the things which used to consume time but generate social interaction have been superseded by technology. How many people now knock on a pensioner's door to collect the rent or read the meter?
Technology has also changed the way work impinges on time. Hard physical labour has natural limits. Unless you're superhuman, your productivity shovelling coal will drop off rapidly once you've reached a certain point. As the primary emphasis on our economic activity has moved from manual to mental and personal service has overtaken physical effort, the scope for work to colonise discretionary time has soared.
This is an edited text of a speech to a Relationships Forum conference. First published in The Age on September 7, 2006.
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