Do you have the time?

I have always found it strange that the gold watch (or clock) has long been considered a traditional retirement gift.

Surely once you are retired, you will have more time to enjoy, and less cause to watch the minutes tick by to home time, less need to set an alarm to wake you up?

Industrialisation and work patterns

In a recent visit to Callendar House, Scotland, I saw an interesting display on changing patterns of work.

Prior to industrialisation, the display explains, most people’s income depended on a mixture of selling their own produce, fees from work for their landlords, and odd jobs. Typically, they ‘would work until they had enough money to keep them going for a while, then stop until they needed more’. Few people, other than miners, worked at a single job.

Following 1750, industrialisation resulted in ‘an individual’s loss of control over both work and working time. Now it was labour for 12 hours or more… Leisure time was also dictated by bosses’.

As a result, time took on a new significance: ‘A difference soon emerged between those who controlled time – the managers – and those whose lives were ruled by it – the laborers’.

Clocks in Callendar House’s display on Changing Patterns of Work

Clocks, originally limited to only the wealthiest of people, were traditionally seen as a status symbol, or a grand piece of furniture, rather than as a means of regulating daily activity. The British Museum houses some beautiful examples of these status symbols, immense, sophisticated clocks that tell not only the second, minute, and hour, but day of the week, month, saints’ days and other festivities, and calculate the movement of the stars in the heavens.

Masterpiece clocks at the British Museum. The ship had working cannons and could ‘sail’ across a table – a real showpiece.

As more people moved away from the traditional patterns of work and arriving at a specified place of work at a predetermined time of day became more important, the better-off workers began to own clocks in their houses.

Before private ownership of clocks was widespread, mining towns employed a ‘knocker upper’ to wake up workers. Knocker-uppers gained prominence in the industrial revolution, when more people needed to get up for their factory or other jobs and be ready at a specific time. (Here’s a fantastic picture of a knocker upper). For a few pence a week, you could hire someone to knock on your window with a knob on a stick at a predetermined time – effectively trading money for time.

A return to pre-1700s work patterns?

In more modern times, part-time jobs are often decried for eroding workers’ rights, such as paid sick leave and holidays, and other benefits, as well as the security of a regular, predictable income.

On the other hand, the internet has enabled many workers to be self employed or small business traders, hobbyists, and to make economic use of what they have on hand – renting out their unused rooms, cars, and other assets. Combined with full- or part-time employment, workers can enjoy a more diversified income stream (as well as more diversified activities and more diversified experiences) than employment in a sole job – especially factory employment – allowed.

Someone interested in sewing, for example, could design and make blouses after work, selling them through ebay or etsy or a custom online store, rather than mass-producing hundreds of pockets or sleeves all day every day for years. (Of course, this is not to say that mass production and factory labour no longer exist, but we must aim for the elimination of sweatshop labour and towards more fair, sustainable practices for every employee worldwide).

Over the last year, the United States has seen in increase in the number and proportion of people employed in two or more jobs, rising from 4.9% to 5.2% of the employed population. The rate varies considerably by state: in 2013, almost 10% of workers in South Dakota worked multiple jobs. Interestingly, multiple job holders are likely to be white, female, and with higher educational attainment: holders of advanced degrees being 3x more likely to work several jobs that those without a high school diploma. But this doesn’t appear to be because of high university debt: higher degrees of educational attainment are correlated with non-economic reasons for additional work, such as gaining more varied experience, or liking the type of work, Business Insider reports. Employment in agricultural work is also a common reason for having more than one job, given its seasonal nature.

An even higher proportion of Australian workers hold multiple jobs, at 6% – frequently women aged 35-54, when they are more likely to have mortgages and dependent children. Multiple job holders in Australia earned slightly more than those with single jobs overall (but not a statistically significant difference – $16 extra per week in 2007), worked slightly more (3 hours extra a week), and spent a similar amount of time travelling to and from work (especially as many second jobs can be done from home). Those who work in the arts and recreation industries were most likely to have two or more jobs, given these occupations’ sporadic and seasonal natures, while mining – just like in the 1700s – was the industry in which workers were most likely to have a single job.

Freeter culture

In Japan, where the stereotype of the ‘salaryman’ who has a full-time job for life has been particularly strong (even if it wasn’t as prevalent in reality as the popular imagination might have it), there is an interesting term to describe a special kind of part-time worker: Freeter (フリーター).

The first part of the term derives from the English word ‘free’ (フリー or furii in Japanese) – possibly short for ‘freelance’ in this context, and the second, from the loanword from German, ‘arbeiter’ (アルバイト or arubaito in the Japanese loan) + -er.

Freeter refer to those who lack full-time employment, categorised by the Japanese Government into:

  • Moratorium Freeter who want the freedom to enjoy life away from the ‘rat race’
  • Dream Pursuers who have a specific dream incompatible with a traditional career
  • No-Alternative Freeter who are unable to find full-time work

Part-time work has risen in America too, where the Huffington Post reports a sharp increase in part-timers following the Global Financial Crisis. The article concludes that while employment figures do not look good for so-called millennials (those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, of which I am one), tough times can ‘open up creative opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation’. While not everyone is able to do so, the economic situation seems to be telling us that 1) ‘the labor framework that worked for our parents will most likely not work for us’ and 2) ‘we need to support one another’.

Seven career changes

Conventional wisdom tells us that people experience an average of seven career changes in a lifetime – although the numbers are fuzzy – it could be as many as 12, but as most of these are in the early years of one’s working life, the number of true career switches (as opposed to changing summer jobs while at school) may be closer to the figure of seven.

According to Forbes, the tradition of giving a golden watch upon retirement dates back to Pepsi Co in the 1940s, intended to signify ‘you gave us your time, now we are giving you ours’. ‘Retirement Activist’ Robert Laura says that this practice made sense back when people stayed with the same company for 30-40 years and gold cost $34 an ounce. ‘Today, the average length of job tenure is roughly five years, and the price of gold hovers near $1,600 an ounce’ – making gold watches a much less sustainable gift upon leaving a job.

What is replacing the gold watch?

The same thing we’ve always sold our time for: money. The New York Times reports that not only are American firms more likely to give their employees money as a retirement gift, but so are companies in Switzerland – where Swatch and other major watch and clock manufacturers have traditionally been based.

Our patterns of work change our relationship to time – the notion that you have to eat at certain hours rather than when you are hungry, sleep at a certain time in preparation to get up the next day rather than when you are tired, limit your contact with family and friends to prescribed times in the evening and on weekends can all be attributed to work.

Now that I am no longer working, the only time I look at a clock is when I want to do something time-sensitive – like catch a train to a place I want to visit, not to determine when I have to do something – like get ready for a meeting. I no longer own a watch, and I can go days without looking at my mobile phone. o

Traditional clockwork and digital wristwatches are no longer the essential item they once were – replaced by cellphones, and now, smart watches. Just like the decorative watches and clocks of yore, I suspect that most people who wear non-’smart’ watches these days do so as a piece of jewellery, as a status symbol rather than as a functional piece.

The ‘Graff Diamonds Hallucination’ watch (presumably so-named because it costs more than the GDP of the entire nation of Tuvalu, leaving one prone to hyperventilation and hallucinations), with its virtually unreadable clockface dwarved by the surrounding gemstones and pricetag of $55 million USD almost certainly fits this category.

But as mobile phones and smart watches replace more traditional timepieces, giving us the freedom to communicate with anyone, from anywhere, at any time, to access more information more easily than ever before, we also have to be careful that we are using these devices for our benefit, not our detriment.

Does your mobile phone free you from constraints, and connect you with loved ones – or does it tie you even further to the workplace, making you ‘always on call’, always partly consumed by work, always on the clock, always a cog in the machine?

How many jobs do you have? Find out how diversified your income is.
Do you consider yourself a ‘Freeter’? If so, what kind?

Today’s featured image is from the interactive clock-making display at Callendar House, Scotland.

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