Time-banking offers hope to the dispossessed youth of Europe

Everyone has something to offer if you treat their time as the precious commodity.

With a youth unemployment rate of 27 per cent, time-rich Spaniards have embraced the concept of time-banking, a market system where hours of life replace money as the measure of value (£):

Even though she's one of millions of young, unemployed Spaniards, 22-year-old Silvia Martín takes comfort in knowing that her bank is still standing behind her. It's not a lending institution, but rather a time bank whose nearly 400 members barter their services by the hour.

Ms. Martín, who doesn't own a car and can't afford taxis, has relied on other time-bank members to give her lifts around town for her odd jobs and errands, as well as to help with house repairs. In return, she has cared for members' elderly relatives, organized children's parties and even hauled boxes for a member moving to a new house.

Time-banking was first championed by Edgar Cahn as a way to address market failures. Cahn argues that the price mechanism, by valuing scarcity, actively defines "every fundamental capacity that has enabled our species to survive [as] worthless".

He suggests that our entire economic system – and therefore, arguably, society – is based on notions of "valuable work" and "assets" that belittle "our ability to care for each other". Because humans are hardwired for love, activities that are driven by caring or passion are theoretically abundant, but economically worthless; this means that they are relegated to volunteer work.

And so, Cahn distinguishes the "special program" that is the monetary system from the "operating system" that is the democracy, social justice and community on which the former depends. His basic argument is that we’ve neglected this "core economy" in favour of an accessory social system that is built around an arbitrary reward structure.

Time-banking was therefore envisaged as a tool to nurture our "core economy" by using the very mechanisms that have brought us such incredible material wealth – the market system. By using hours of time as the signal of worth, time-banking hopes to "create a constituency for justice" by incentivising people to "pay it forward".

For every hour of time and skill someone devotes to a time-bank job, they get an hour, from another person, back. This allows members access to services they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford – foreign language lessons, plumbing, help with shopping, babysitting.

However, the material payoffs of time-banking are far surpassed by the community ties and sense of worth it builds. In a study led by the new economics foundation (pdf), a time-banking initiative undertaken in the unemployment-stricken area of Gorbals in Glasgow was proven to instil pride and belonging, even in the most estranged members of society (for instance, asylum seekers who are prevented from working for pay).

A key tenet of time-banking is precisely that everyone has something to offer. In particular, members of the Gorbals time-bank cited that they felt that their skills were valued. This is especially important for the unemployed, who have been deemed worthless by the market; it counters the depressing thought that you, who are unable to find a job, have nothing to offer society. Or, more simply, it reminds those whose hourly life rate has been set at £6.08 that everyone’s time is of equal value, irrespective of education, luck, and market-worthy skills.

Furthermore, the commodification of kindness afforded by the Time Banking system eliminates the awkward one-sidedness of charity. As quoted by East London Lines, Gill Stoker, a member of the landmark Rushney Green Time Bank in Lewisham says:

The beauty of time credits is that everybody gains something. No-one feels like an object of charity. I get back what I give out.

At its worst, charity scathes recipients’ pride and fuels helplessness, whilst leaving benefactors nauseous for being so condescending.

With time-banking, the mutually incited torrent of self-loathing and moral confusion is plugged by the fact that the entire system presupposes a relationship between equals.

As a young person in Europe, it is especially easy to feel desperate and estranged. While faceless Brussels technocrats and foreign leaders hold lofty press conferences, the social floor quakes.

The nationalisms we would have clung to a few decades ago are no longer relevant; my generation has grown up with a single currency and fuzzy ideas of sovereignty. This is a good thing, but can often make you forget that you are a part of something bigger than yourself or your immediate circle of loved ones. The pretext of equal exchange, by encouraging people to get to know their neighbour (however fleetingly or shallowly), serves as a catalyst for meaningful engagement with the world, rather than passive meandering. Because its hard to make sacrifices for faceless, nameless people.

A Greek man holds a time-banking coupon in Volos. Photograph: Getty Images
Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war