A sideways look at economics

It’s that time of the year in Britain when most small talk involves a predictable moan at the increasingly dark afternoons. This seasonal phenomenon recurs as British Summer Time ends and clocks across the country go back an hour. But this annual ritual of adjusting our clocks is more than just a topic for small talk — it can serve as a reminder of how impactful timekeeping has been in shaping our societies.

The origin of tracking time can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians who, after studying the cycle of constellations, divided the day and night each into twelve equal parts. Obelisks and later sundials were built across their empires, using shadows to help measure the passing of the day. The amount of daylight fluctuates as the seasons change, meaning that, when divided equally, Egyptian ‘hours’ could range from around 45 to 75 minutes over the course of a year. This system worked well enough in pre-industrialised society, with the vast majority of people working in agriculture, as their work was inherently tied to natural cycles.

This method of measuring time lasted for millennia, with numerous subsequent civilisations adopting the practice — including the Romans — allowing them to function in step with the rhythms of the natural world. There were developments in this technology, including water clocks and hourglasses, but the real change came with industrialisation. As the wheels of progress turned, the ancient system of sundials quickly became an outdated novelty. The industrial era called for a more consistent and precise measure of time, setting the stage for a dramatic transformation in how our societies functioned.

The introduction of steam power and mechanisation required a level of coordination and efficiency previously unseen. Trains, to be effective and safe, had to run on tight schedules and factories needed workers to operate in unison. This required a move away from the inconsistent temporal hours to a standardised time system, such as the mechanical clock. Studies have shown that nations that were early adopters of the mechanical clock experienced economic growth between the 16th and 18th centuries, which was around 30 percentage points higher than those slower off the mark. By the end of the 19th century, the concept of measuring time in equal, fixed hours was the unquestioned norm. This transition signalled the dawn of a new era where time equalled money and efficiency was king.

Over time, economic and technological progress has demanded increasingly precise timekeeping. The modern global economy could not function without it, ensuring that stock markets operate accurately and securely, allowing flight schedules to be synchronised across different time zones, facilitating global trade and enabling national energy grids to provide consistent power to our cities. In contrast to the sundials of the Egyptians, there are atomic clocks in existence today that are accurate to one billionth of a second annually: so accurate that if they had started running at the same time as the Big Bang they would only be out by a second today. This degree of accuracy may seem unnecessary, but in 2016 when an error caused several GPS signals to be out by just 13 microseconds the result was scrambled radio broadcasts and hours of “system errors” for companies.

But, for all its advantages, it is hard to deny the deep impact this transition has had on civilisations. We no longer go to bed when we’re tired, wake naturally or eat when we are hungry. Our lives are ordered by the clock — children go to school at designated times, working hours often dictate mealtimes and social events are scheduled rather than spontaneous. Leisure time has been squeezed into evenings and weekends, and the concept of ‘free time’ has become a commodity to be carefully managed. It is hard for us even to imagine how society functioned before this. The clock didn’t just change our schedules, it reshaped our perception of daily life. We now follow a rhythm dictated more by digital calendars and pinging reminders than nature. The effects this artificial structure has had on our health is easily visible, primarily through increased stress from the pressure to be constantly productive.

The strictness and dominance of modern timekeeping is symbolic of how, as a species, we increasingly bend the natural world to fit our ever more efficient economies. In few places is this more evident than in China, where the entire country operates on a single time zone, despite its vast longitudinal range. This is a stark contrast to the United States, spanning a similar distance but divided into four zones. The result is that, in the height of summer, easternmost areas of China can see sunrise at around 3 am, a whole four and a half hours ahead of their counterparts in the west. It is a testament to our ability (or perhaps obsession) to standardise and control, but also a reminder of how far removed our daily lives can be from the natural world that once governed them.

But this is a TFIF, so let’s get onto the positives so we can all enjoy the weekend. There are signs that we are steering towards a healthier balance between our digital and natural rhythms. The recent surge in hybrid working, accelerated by the pandemic, has sparked a profound and unexpected re-evaluation of our work-life balance. The rigid 9-to-5 structure is increasingly giving way to flexible working hours. This shift acknowledges that productivity can coexist with individual time management, and even benefit from it, allowing individuals to align their work schedules more closely with their own natural rhythms.

Recent studies have highlighted the benefits of working more flexibly for both the employee and employer. A report this year by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, for example, examined the perceived effects of hybrid working on productivity, revealing three times as many employers found productivity rose than those who thought the opposite, based on UK data. Another report, this time on the American workforce, found that, if given the choice of just one additional perk, ‘more flexibility’ was the second preference for employees, followed closely by ‘more time off’. No prizes for guessing the top choice: ‘more money’.

Whilst undoubtedly allowing a more natural structure to our days, hybrid working policies are by no means a silver bullet. The emergence of hybrid and remote working has, unfortunately, been a catalyst for the unhealthier aspects of ‘taking work home’, such as checking emails well into the night. Post-COVID, we lack the same physical boundaries between our work and personal lives, and often find it harder to switch off from work. So, whilst flexible working may be more amenable to our natural rhythms, staring at screens into the early hours certainly isn’t. As is so often the case throughout our history, we should try to avoid solving one issue by introducing others.

We have come a long way since our ancestors in ancient Egypt, from obelisks to atomic clocks, all whilst our species has evolved little.[[1]]   It is useful to take a moment sometimes to reflect and even marvel, not only at the technological change recent humans have experienced, but also at the change within our societies. Our changing relationship with time is a good example. So, as the days grow darker whilst we march into winter, take the opportunity to remind yourself that it is not just the clocks on our wrists that we are bound by, but our biological ones as well.

Painting: Chronos and His Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. The personification of Time in pre-Socratic philosophy

Chronos and His Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. The personification of Time in pre-Socratic philosophy

[1] Evidence suggests our brains have actually shrunk over this period


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