Time, according to Sophocles, is a "gentle deity"; a nice thought. But our relationship with time is becoming increasingly fraught. We are engaged in a constant struggle with and for time. This is not new - consider Kipling's unforgiving minute - but we do seem to be going through a particularly bad patch just now. We complain of time crunch, time famine, time squeeze. We fight for quality time. We have to work in "real time". Firms are said to be losing people to "strain drain" because of long working hours.
Lift manufacturers report that their "door close" buttons are being worn out more quickly, as the two to four seconds of door "dwell" before they shut becomes too long to wait for our impatient, stabbing fingers. Work is taking most of the blame for the shortage of time, with survey after survey showing that in the UK we toil for the most hours in Europe. Half of us work more than 40 hours a week. One in four men clear the 48-hour week mark. "Like dumb oxen, we work longer hours than anybody else," lamented Polly Toynbee in the Guardian.
Two-thirds of working women, according to a Good Housekeeping survey, are too tired for sex. (I would love Loaded to repeat the survey among working men.) We are too rushed for long, slow seduction: Marvell may have heard time's winged chariot at his back, but at least he was trying to get someone into bed, not deliver a report to the boss.
The battle over time is therefore being joined under the banner of a better "work/life" balance. If only we devoted fewer hours to the grind, the argument goes, we would have more time for ourselves and our families. The government, albeit without enthusiasm, has signed up to the maximum 48-hour working week. Firms are being urged to smash "long hours cultures". Workers are being encouraged to get a life.
But the work/life debate misses some of the real, recent changes in working patterns. The idea that work and life could be separated is a specifically industrial one. Before the rise of the factory, work varied according to the season, the time of the week, the weather, the mood of the individual - and it was interspersed between other activities. As the historian E P Thompson wrote: "Mature industrial societies are marked by time-thrift and a clear demarcation between 'work' and 'life'. Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent."
The industrialisation of time sprang from the need to control production, and therefore the units of production - workers. Workers, in their turn, demanded and eventually won progressively shorter working weeks. Time was a battleground: in 1894, an anarchist tried to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. And time is at the heart of Karl Marx's critique of the industrial system of exploitation - the labour value that capitalists attempted to extract from the worker was, after all, time in an elaborated form. Not that Marx's followers always got the point: Stalin tried to cancel the weekend.
The minute was invented by the Babylonians. But it was largely ignored until industrialisation. In Tess of the D'Urbevilles, Thomas Hardy describes a street "not made for hasty progress; a street laid out . . . when one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day".
Fordist time - which reached its peak with the time-and-motion studies of the early part of the 20th century - was exact. Factory time is bounded, punctuated by fixed breaks, and measured. Workers "clock" on and off. Reg Theriault, a former docker and the author of How to Tell When You're Tired, echoes the feelings of millions when he describes the time clock as "an infernal machine, if ever there was one".
Our present worries about working time seem at first to be a continuation of this battle between heartless capitalists and exploited workers. But it is more complex than that. The distribution of working hours has been turned on its head: it is now the rich who are putting in the long hours, not the poor.
Bankers' hours used to mean 10-4 with a decent lunch; now City people are at their desks by 7am. More than four in ten managers and administrators work more than 48 hours a week. This month's issue of Management Today contains advice on how to save three hours a day. (One tip is to floodlight your garden so that you can weed after dark.) The length of working hours is a broadsheet issue; you will find hardly a word about it in the tabloids. Far from being the next round of a fight on behalf of the poorest, the "work/life" balance debate is an obsession of the white-collar classes.
The Fordist time-fight was over the hours workers were obliged, by contract, to work. Today, unpaid overtime ratchets up the work-week, according to Susan Harkness, an economics lecturer at the University of Brighton. One in three women with children now works more than 40 hours a week, she calculates, up from fewer than one in five just ten years ago. And the proportion of working mothers putting in unpaid overtime has soared from 18 per cent to 47 per cent. "Hours worked beyond the contracted hours, and mostly unpaid, are the real reason for the increase in working hours," she says. "It is professionals who are adding the unpaid hours on, especially professional women, who are catching up with the men."
After child-bearing, professional women are more likely than their working-class sisters to return to work quickly, and full-time. Because they usually live with professional men, the time impact on the household is much greater. In the two-worker household, overall hours have increased, on average, by seven hours in the past decade - with women contributing most of the rise. As Harkness points out: "Low-paid male workers work similar hours to higher-paid men - although, in their case, it is paid overtime - but their partners are much less likely to be working full-time, and much more likely to be caring for children and managing the home."
So the time crunch is felt in middle-class families with two earners. This is why personal and domestic services - cleaning, ironing, cooking, gardening, childminding - form the fastest-growing occupational category. Wealthier couples work long hours to make their money, then use the money to buy the time they have lost; hence, the growing gap between households that are money-rich but time-poor, and those that are money-poor but time-rich. Al Gini, an American writer on the philosophy of work, believes that the average dual-income household "can best be characterised as an experiment in controlled chaos".
Why do we do it? Why do so many of us, on contracts that specify a 39- or 40-hour week, toil for so many more hours for no additional financial gain? A popular theory is that job insecurity glues us to our seats. Yet only 1 per cent of "48ers" say they are afraid of losing their jobs. Two-thirds say they put in the hours because they are committed to their jobs.
We are stuck in an industrial mindset that assumes work is dangerous and exploitative drudgery. We therefore overlook the possibility that people might actually like their jobs - and that they may therefore stick at them longer. A new analysis by the Institute for Employment Studies - using data from the British Social Attitudes Survey - explodes the myth of the exploited long-hours worker. Among those working more than 60 hours a week, 70 per cent say they "enjoy their job", compared to 57 per cent across the whole working population. The number of workers who say their job is "just a means of earning a living" varies dramatically by hours worked, from 42 per cent among those working 35-39 hours a week to 22 per cent among those working more than 60 hours a week. Far from being fearful or exploited, those who work long hours are actually in love with what they do.
Even Theriault, a former blue-collar worker, rants against those sociologists and economists (including Marx) who insist on seeing working time as merely a price paid for time off. "Regarding work and leisure, people who call themselves humanist philosophers concern themselves, like trade union leaders, with a more equitable balance; that is, more leisure and less work for the workers," he says. "But creative work can be more rewarding and fulfilling than many kinds of leisure. What is needed, it would seem to follow, is to rethink and readjust work to this end."
It is no longer hours worked that is the issue; it is the ability to dictate those hours. The division in the labour market is not between those who work long hours and those who work short hours; it is between those who are in control of their hours, the "time sovereigns", and those for whom hours at work are still laid down, the "time subjects".
The emperors of ancient China knew about time sovereignty - and kept it to themselves. They alone were allowed to track the passing of time, using complex water clocks, and they tried to stop the spread of western clock time eastwards. "The Chinese treated time and knowledge of time as a confidential aspect of sovereignty, not to be shared with the people," says David Landes, the author of Revolution in Time, first published in 1983. To this day, time sovereignty more typically resides with those higher up in an organisation, who are also those putting in the long, unpaid hours. The new Institute for Employment Studies research shows that two-thirds of those putting in more than 60 hours a week have a say in any changes to working patterns in their organisation, compared to half of those who work a standard week.
There is now a growing groundswell for a more equitable division of time sovereignty. It may not ring well - "What do we want? Time Sovereignty!" - but the next bit - "When do we want it? Now!" - puts the point effectively. Two-thirds of us would prefer to choose our own hours and, although those in professional jobs are most keen on time sovereignty, at least three out of five people in every social group want more control. The most skilled workers are starting to demand time sovereignty as a condition of employment, as John Knell points out in a report just published by the Industrial Society (Most Wanted: the quiet birth of the free worker).
Publilius, a Syrian slave who went on to become a popular entertainer in ancient Rome - and win his freedom - said that "the height of misery is to depend on another's man's will". Control over time has always been equated with freedom: why else is prison punishment described as "doing time"?
Right now, a battle over time sovereignty is raging in the National Health Service. Nurses, according to a recent report by the King's Fund, a health policy think-tank, are fed up with being forced into inflexible shift patterns - of being time subjects, in other words. Meanwhile, consultants, who are able to pick and mix their hours - and often delegate clinics to junior staff if they are so inclined - are being reined in. The government's national plan for health includes requirements for consultants to work a specified number of hours in NHS hospitals - a small erosion of their time sovereignty which has already ruffled some expensive feathers. Again, while the shift to white-collar work has freed millions from the tyranny of rigidly fixed hours, schoolteachers, once viewed as the most privileged of professionals, are now among the least time-sovereign workers of all: locked not only into working patterns dictated to the minute by bells, but also into fixed (if long) holidays.
A simplistic attack on long working hours, therefore, misses the point. It is the best-paid, most powerful workers who put in the extra hours and, by and large, they do so because they want to. They are also, critically, the most time-sovereign. The committed leader of a charity who puts in 60 hours a week may seem overworked and poorly paid. But she can leave to collect her children from school, then work on a paper in the evening if she wishes. Likewise, a company executive can order his PA to clear his diary.
So should we stop worrying about people who work long hours, provided those hours are chosen and controlled? Only up to a point. We should worry about their partners and their children. "Even if working long hours does not affect the individual detrimentally, it is likely to affect those around him or her," argues Jenny Kodz, an Institute for Employment Studies research Fellow. "It might be OK for time-sovereign workers - but not for their families."
Even time-sovereign workers who love their jobs report a negative impact on family life; one child in five is now estimated to suffer a stress-related illness linked to the long hours worked by parents. And there is also a huge gender dimension to time sovereignty. Working men have much more time sovereignty than working women. Yet it is usually the latter who have to leave the office to pick up the children at a fixed time. Their time sovereignty often merely allows them to put in extra hours in the home, the supermarket and the GP surgery. "The rise in women's working hours," says Harkness, "has not been matched by the drop in hours spent on work in the home." Indeed, women who combine motherhood and paid work are often the most time-subject of all. Michelle Fitoussi, the author of Why Superwomen are Fed Up, says of her breed: "What we lack more than anything else is time."
It is not surprising, then, that women are often at the forefront of the battle for time sovereignty. Real sovereignty means not just the legal, or negotiated, right to leave in time to pick up the children from school and catch up with work later - it means being able to leave the office at 3pm with no explanation at all. A culture in which flexibility is merely tolerated is not a time-sovereign one.
We are throwing off the shackles of industrial time, which segments our life into chunks, and are returning to a pre-industrial method of working, with a fuzzier line between work and life, and an end to the nine-to-five. The move towards a "knowledge economy" is fuelling this trend. Who does not have their best ideas on the bus? Or in the bath? Was Archimedes working when he took his?
But it is an uncomfortable transition. At the moment, post- industrial working time - flexible, task-driven, personal, sovereign - is being stuck on top of the industrial nine-to-five rather than replacing it. We need to ditch altogether the idea of the "nine-to-five"(or the "anything-to-anything", for that matter) and pay people to do a job, rather than to fill a set quota of hours. Our "lives" have to intrude on our "work" as much as the other way around. Take this paper and read it at your desk. Later, if it is a slow day, go shopping for a couple of hours. Play tennis. Have a pedicure.
Policy-makers, too, need to stop using the weapons of the industrial time-war, such as the maximum working week, to fight the quite different time battles of the post-industrial age, which are about the diffusion of sovereignty.
A member of a recent delegation to London from Russia let out a guffaw when he heard the above description of time-sovereign workers. "This time sovereignty," he said, "it is what we used to call communism!" And indeed, it is much closer to what Marx had in mind than what the Soviet Union - with its Stakhanovite working culture - built in his name. But it is time for a change. Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your time-chains.
The writer is the director of Futures at the Industrial Society. This article is based on a forthcoming Futures report by Richard Reeves and Judith Doyle, "Time Out: the battle for time sovereignty"
Are you a time lord or a time subject?
Competition closes 14th August 2000