Saturday 30 October 2010

The big society and the time squeeze

Ed Miliband's speech [full text] to the Scottish Labour conference yesterday contained an interesting passage arguing that the good society/big society depends on a political economy which understands time pressures if it is to be more than rhetoric.

Let me tell you also what we understand: the good society depends on the fair economy.

If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else?

That's why we need an economy which lifts people out of poverty and supports not just a minimum wage but a decent living wage.

Until we address the conditions that mean that people's lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.

For many people, that would be a significant reality check to the otherwise laudable exhortation to arms and civic engagement at the end of David Cameron's party conference speech this Autumn.

So that great project in your community – go and lead it. The waste in government – go and find it. The new school in your neighbourhood – go and demand it.

The beat meeting on your street – sign up.

The neighbourhood group – join up. That business you always dreamed of – start up.

Michelle Harrison of the Henley Centre looked at 'the inequalities of everyday life' for Fabian Review back in 2006, setting out data showing how the value placed on time can easily be underestimated in public and political debate.

Which of these resources is most valuable to you in everyday life?

Time 41% most; 5% least
Energy 27% most; 4% least
Money 11% most; 18% least
Informaton 9% most; 33% least
Space 5% most; 47% least
Michelle Harrison, Henley Centre, Fabian Review, Spring 2006

I would be interested to hear if anybody knows of more recent data on whether attitudes towards time have shifted since.

Yet the distribution of time has probably been a less prominent social issue since the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession. Some would anticipate that quality of life concerns - sometimes referred to as "post-materialist" issues - would take a backseat to more bread and butter economic concerns.

Yet it is likely to be more complicated than that. With living standards are stagnant or falling for many people - for example with wage freezes or increases less than inflation, and rising costs of childcare, utility bills and transport - then the option to trade-off money and time may disappear and become more difficult, quite probably across the income spectrum. So time pressure could become more acute for people, particularly if exacerbated by increased economic stress.

Harrison wrote that the increased social salience of time pressure over the last two decades was often misunderstood, suggesting that it was a "peculiarly inclusive social trend".

By the start of the 1990s, the phenomenon of time squeeze had emerged. While the Sunday papers caricatured time squeeze as the height of yuppiedom, it was actually a peculiarly inclusive social trend. Certainly, high-powered executives exemplified the long-hours culture, but so did a typical single mother holding down three part-time jobs, juggling the school run and the family shop around them.

What Henley Centre research showed was emerging inequalities in the ability to manage this social shift. Whilst the wealthier (social class AB) were increasingly willing to spend money to save themselves time, the poorest (social class DE) could not ...

Women are more likely than men to feel stressed; they are more likely to feel exhausted at the end of the day (particularly if they are mothers). They are uniquely short of energy, which for them is in far shorter supply on a day to day basis than either time or money. (Conversely, they are less willing than men to feel they can spend money to buy themselves time).

The economic, social and technological contexts have shifted again in several different ways, but time pressures may well often be front-of-mind for many in the 'squeezed middle'.

Addressing these through politics is difficult: we experience the issues of juggling work, family and other demands as pressures which we have to navigate and negotiate individually - with partners and family and employers - and so may well tend to be sceptical about the possibility of generating collective societal shifts which could make a real difference to these individual choices (though some issues - such as help with childcare provision and costs - can cut through this).

So tangible ideas which link and address the economic and time pressures for the squeezed middle could well resonate for Ed Miliband ... if anybody has got the time to listen.

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