Monday, 16 March 2015

Time is Money

The news that the Apple Watch will cost between £300 and £700, depending on features (iPhone not included), confirms that it is being positioned as an elite "want" rather than a mass-market "need". The announcement of a £13k limited release gold and sapphire model seems rather superfluous in the circumstances. Though the coming ubiquity of the quantified self is real, and smartwatches will be part of it, Apple has no intention of stepping beyond its target demographic of the well-heeled. It also looks determined to launch the device primarily as a toy for boys. This association of time with gender and class is emblematic of the modern economy.

One of the revolutionary achievements of neoliberalism has been the breaking of ranks in respect of the fixed working week, with precarious employees scrabbling to secure minimum hours and many executives and professionals expected to be "available 24x7". Of course, plenty of people still work a 40-hour week, but they are not ideologically exemplary, so they don't get the media coverage. The key difference between the two extremes of "not enough" and "too much" is autonomy. Though executives complain about their busy schedules, they actually have a high degree of control over their own time (not to mention the time of others), while the low-paid are at the "text and call" of zero-hour employers. This is no different to the class divisions of the past when workers were subject to the regime of the workplace clock (and daily "picks" if casualised) while owners and managers had their own fob-watches (they literally possessed their own time).

The overwork of the "cash-rich, time-poor" is not the product of modern technology, as is often claimed, but a cultural choice: the architecture of email is not realtime and the marginal increase in accessibility brought by mobile phones is exaggerated. "Busyness" is performative. The cultural origins of this lie in America (with roots going back to the nineteenth century), reflecting the global spread of US corporate practices in the 60s and 70s. In the 90s, this was reinforced first by BPR (business processing reengineering) and outsourcing, which normalised the idea of management as a series of ongoing projects and organisational changes, and then by the spread of US "new economy" norms, such as working stupid hours in the expectation of an IPO or building a portfolio career (i.e. precarious, multiple part-time jobs).

One theory for the growth in hours worked by the highly-paid is that as wage inequality increases so the rewards for marginal hours become greater, encouraging more work. Though they aren't paid an hourly rate, "putting in the hours" is a way of indicating loyalty and implying productivity, which may lead to greater remuneration. This has a superficial plausibility, but there is an obvious flaw. In the majority of roles, the most productive workers are those that minimise their time, not those who maximise it. An alternative explanation is that presenteeism is thought to morally justify outsize rewards for those not on an hourly rate. In other words, it is partly motivated by social embarrassment and can be seen as a form of visible penance. What is significant is that both views see time not as a commodity that is exchanged for cash, but as a claim against a de facto rent.

Rent-seeking is not just a case of executive looting, such as university vice-chancellors adopting CEO norms, but also occurs through the creation of supernumerary roles. This may be endogenous, in the form of roles created to build and reinforce internal power structures, or exogenous, in the form of socially-mandated roles whereby elites take a cut from businesses or state bodies, such as non-executive directors or the members of quangos. The growth of whitecollar jobs relative to bluecollar has long been seen a sign of increasing human capital and thus aggregate productivity, but this ignores the greater scope for rent-seeking as jobs become less measurable in terms of individual output. Parallel to this, the growing demand for regulation and oversight (and thus responsibility) increases supervisory overheads. The drama of a Parliamentary committee, whether interrogating bankers or spooks, reflects the growth of software and automation, which in turn is feeding the growth in supernumerary roles.

Increasing inequality in pay is as much about the inequality in hours as it is in hourly rates. The need to "get the hours" drives behaviour at the bottom of the income scale, such as taking on a second job, and at the top, such as collecting non-executive gigs. This has a negative impact on productivity: at the bottom, it leads to soldiering in order to justify overtime, as well as labour-capital substitution; at the top it leads to superficiality - i.e. having insufficient bandwidth or expertise to be effective. The affront of various senior bankers and non-execs at HSBC that they couldn't be expected to know what was going on in their own organisation is not mere disingenuousness. Rona Fairhead, like her fellow HSBC non-execs, is paid to adorn a committee. She is not expected to actually do any work beyond read an audit report, sit through a meeting and nod assent.

Fairhead's understanding of her role, and the continuing debate about gender balance in boardrooms, shows that the gender pay gap is as much about "representation" (i.e. the value of symbolic presence) as it is about individual contribution. When top roles become de facto sinecures, they inevitably reflect wider prejudices. For example, pay disparities in Hollywood reflect the dynamics of the industry. "Stars" are paid proportionate to their ability to put bums on seats. This is why Emma Watson currently earns more than Timothy Spall. Women are at a structural disadvantage in that studios reflect and reinforce societal sexism, because that makes narrow economic sense: they are financially incentivised to be biased, which overrides their "liberal" norms. In contrast, there is little financial incentive to be biased in construction, which is why the gender pay gap is much smaller in that industry despite the assumed innate sexism of builders. Hollywood will be one of the last industries to achieve gender pay equality, despite Patricia Arquette's laudable exhortation.

Wider sexism dictates that watches are usually gender-specific. By making its smartwatch a chunky, feature-rich device, Apple is reinforcing the prejudice that a "tech watch" is a product for chisel-jawed men who do important stuff. In the modern economy, an ostentatious concern with time is significant both in terms of peer status and self-esteem, similar to the concern with never being "out of touch" while travelling or on holiday. Just as a Rolex says "too wealthy to give a toss", so an Apple Watch will say "too important to pay you even cursory attention".


  1. Only personal experience, but I had a German manager observe that long hours working wasn't tolerated there. If somebody couldn't do their job in normal hours, then they were either inefficient or the job was too much for one person. I doubt that this would apply to workers at the top or bottom, though.

  2. Completely right about Fairhead, though. Arrogance and bewilderment sitting side-by-side. "How could you imagine that I'd know the detail of something that I was responsible for?"

  3. 'Smart watches' are always going to be mere status symbols. Mobile phones are already small enough to fit comfortably in anyone's pocket or handbag, and a watch is far too tiny to function effectively for many of the tasks currently performed by smart phones. Like many such possessions, its essential uselessness is its selling point, as only the wealthy can afford to pay hundreds for something pointless.

  4. Sorry, but it's just too long. Make it shorter. And don't say it's too difficult. I once had to do legal articles on complex professional negligence issues in less than 150 words. We all moaned, but we could do it if pushed.

    1. Why not read something else then?

    2. Exactly, if I wanted to read something short and superficial I'd join twitter.

  5. Possibly Luke is making a timely joke?

  6. I work for a company that provides data warehouses, reporting solutions etc to clients. The problem isn't so much the competence of the staff, though needing to do extra hours can be a sign that someone is relatively inexperienced. The main and general problem is with firms overstretching themselves in order to gain market share. so a company takes on more than it can handle, competition drives this.

    I have seen mass resignations around this issue and a problem that isn't easy to address!