Balancing the time budget

Do we really think that money is the most important thing in our lives? The treatment of most issues in the public sphere is based on that assumption: incomes, tax cuts, payments, rebates and interest rates dominate our political debates. However, polls find that we think our relationships with friends, family, workmates, neighbours and all our other connections with people are more important than our financial status. In other words, it’s the time we put into relationships that makes us happy. Yet in policy terms, any use of time that isn’t financially rewarded gets a rough deal.

This was clearly illustrated by the response to the ALP’s new industrial relations policy. While there are few mentions of time in the policy, it does contain the provision that employed parents are entitled to one year’s unpaid maternity/paternity leave, and have the right to request flexible working hours to care for young children. The response from the Coalition was that this minor change was unfair to employers and would make them reluctant to hire women. It works in the UK and Scandinavia and may even increase productivity, as was shown in a recent English study on flexibility in workplaces, but in Australia the needs of the workplace are prioritised over any other time requirements.

This is just the latest example of the failure of both major political parties to recognise that people need to be able to budget time as well as money. Increasing the time we spend in workplaces may create more income but it does not automatically lead to the satisfaction of a life well lived, nor is it necessarily compatible with increased productivity or good workplace practices. The organisation of our working time is too often shaped to fit the production cycles of an earlier era, when it was necessary to be present behind a desk or machine to complete one’s tasks. With changing work technologies, jobs and environments, we need lose these rigid assumptions and reflect on effective time allocations rather than just assuming that the old ‘clocking on’ habits still meet our needs.

Our control over how we spend our time is constrained by a range of institutional factors like paid work requirements, commuting time, school hours and the availability of other care services. This means that time is not just a personal issue, but a policy issue. In ‘Making time and taking time‘ I explored how current policies, particularly in industrial relations, have failed to find ways of more effectively reconciling the time demands of paid workplaces and of households. A plethora of reports on the question of ‘work life balance’, have failed to shift the intransigent policies and practices of both governments and employers.

We need to start by talking about how we want to live our lives. Rather than dividing it into small parts that are dealt with in separate places such as paid work, volunteering, domestic work, exercise, care, pleasure etc, we need to look at a 24/7 life model and allocate time within it. What if we assumed that, as with money, we started with a time budget and decided how we would spend it on the basis of our preferences? This could open up new ways to discuss the role of paid workplaces in our lives and to compare industrial relations with personal relations. How do we trade time and money? What will give us the greatest capacity to either combine or separate the activities we do for love and for money? The separation of home from paid work may be another shibboleth that needs to be discarded – but we also need to ensure that by rubbing out the line between home and work we don’t end up creating a universe of outworkers.

The following suggestions put the so-called ‘work-life balance’ debate in another framework to see if it works better than the micro-economic or rights-based approaches that have been used so far. What if we were to treat our level of control over time as the core measure of people’s well being? What if we were to treat the effective use of time for building civil relationships as our measure of ‘the good society’?

There are many ways of talking about time use: making time, taking time, spending time, saving time, buying time, wasting time, stretching time and shrinking time. We allocate or budget time to cover different parts of our lives: work time, travel time, family time (including quality time), leisure time, study time, exercise time, holiday time, rest and sleep as well as care for others, domestic chores, personal maintenance and other task based time. Time shrinks, passes, grows and disappears and drives much of our lives but we often fail to look at it as a separate and important factor.

If we start by recognising that time is the currency of relationships, and that healthy relationships are crucial to good societies, families, workgroups, etc, it becomes easier to see that we need to ‘invest’ time in nurturing our relationships. The capacity to relate to friends, family, and even strangers, is central to being socially responsive and responsible. If we have enough time to be with people, through sharing experiences and knowledge, we can solve difficulties and make creative and exciting social systems. Time is necessary for so many aspects of the good life and its absence undermines social ties and feelings of good will.

In workplaces, taking time to cement relationships allows people to develop ideas, improve communications and work more effectively with others. If we wanted to draw a parallel with economics we could invoke the metaphor of time as a currency which we buy and spend, either with other people or on our own. Our use of time is often the best indicator of our capacity to create balance in our lives. It has a powerful impact on how we value ourselves and others, and how much they value us.

The way we use time has changed dramatically over the last few decades, yet we have not really reframed the institutional frameworks that govern how time is allocated. The combination of technological change and the increased number of people in paid work has altered many tasks and forms of communication. In the 24/7 world, there is no clear downtime. Night in one area is day elsewhere and communication blurs the time space differences. There is an explosion of information, often online and accessible on the run; mobile phones allow contact with others anywhere and anytime. Working from home can mean relief from travel and time with children, or it can mean a new series of impositions that prevent us from ever switching off. Face to face communication becomes only one way of interacting with others – albeit the most essential one in many cases. Personal contact may supplement or complement other forms of interactions. Our physical presence in workplaces may be useful in some cases, but in others it may be just an unnecessary drag based on outdated assumptions.

These and many other observations about time have formed the basis of countless books, articles, studies and bus-stop conversations, yet in Australia – a country with among the longest working hours in the OECD – time has been consistently neglected by our policy makers.

There are many important questions which have never been formally considered from a policy perspective, starting with why we feel so time poor when all these supposedly time saving devices are an increasing part of our lives. We need to start by looking at time as a crucial (and finite) asset and think more strategically about how it should be used.

Policy recommendation one

The federal government should establish a major inquiry in 2008 to examine the issues of time use and time poverty in workplaces, communities and households. Its terms of reference should also look at the potential for more effective use of technology to enhance productivity and well being.

Why we need this inquiry


In many workplaces the changes outlined above have not been considered seriously. Where adjustments have been made it has usually been by stretching the old models, rather than adopting new ones. Time in workplaces is subsumed and sometimes obscured by a misguided focus on people being physically present for many hours, including more time outside the old eight hour work day. This creates unnecessary rigidities in arranging tasks effectively as being seen ‘on the job’ is often misused as the measure of commitment and competence. Too many people are expected to work in a set place, rather than being able to complete tasks and chores in varying time frames and different locations.

The use of new technologies has often added to the demands on our time rather than assisting us to manage it better. This problem needs to be examined, as changes in the technologies we use and the types of work (both paid and unpaid) which we undertake, should allow for more creative and flexible ways of organising our all our responsibilities and tasks.

Family and community time flows

Being time poor is a real problem for many of us: there never seems to be enough time to spend with family and friends; no time for doing things the way we’d like to; no time to think, to talk, create or play. For many of us the workplace takes up too much of our time and displaces other ways of using time. For others the lack of resources may mean that we spend too much time trying to complete daily tasks as we battle bureaucrats and public services which often use queuing and waiting times as a way of allocating resources.

Making time for own priorities can be difficult when we have limited control over the demands others put on us. If you care for others it may be hard to find time for other activities; if your employer expects you to be available on call you can’t make arrangements that fit with other time demands and preferences. Lack of control over time use can get stressful and difficult. Those who retain a sense of control over allocating their own time tend to be more healthy than those who do not, suggesting this is an important indicator of broader wellbeing (see Michael Marmot’s research on the social determinants of health).

In practice there are many unnecessary barriers to the sensible and reasonable use of time. Many of these arise from social, institutional and financial inequalities which inhibit our control over time, as well as other resources.

Time stress is unfairly allocated: some people have too much time on their hands because no one wants to make use of their time in jobs, paid or unpaid. In these cases time can slow, leading to a sense of inertia and making it hard to find meaning in each day. We need to be able to spend time in ways that make us feel connected and valued; having our time contributions appreciated is the core of productive relationships. Therefore truly civil societies need to allocate tasks in ways which allow us to balance the external demands on our time with our own needs and desires in ways that fit sustainably within our overall time budget.

Policy recommendation 2

Governments need to take an active role in labour market policy, regulation and funding. They also need provide services both for children and for those adults needing personal assistance to ensure that unfair pressures do not prevent them from making sensible time choices. While much of our time is spent on what are deemed private activities, governments still need to legislate to reduce the inequalities of power, information and resources that unfairly limit choices about how we spend our time.

  1. Given the inequalities of power in most workplaces, we need laws and regulations to ensure that employers and employees bargain as equals. While most may prefer to do this, the lack of regulatory frameworks legitimates bad behaviour and makes it more widespread.
  2. Given the costs and complexities of personal care services, governments need to both regulate and fund services that offer quality ‘time out’ and ‘time in’ for both recipients and their unpaid carers. These interventions are necessary to counter market failures, as capacity to pay does not match resources or supply.


The above policy recommendations are only a starting point in setting the agenda for more civilised use of time. Governments need to take an active role if this valuable resource is to be equitably and effectively allocated, rather than undermined by the lack of choice or negotiating power. If we want societies in which citizens can contribute socially, culturally and financially to wider wellbeing as well as their own, policies must enable us to fulfil our obligations as people: as employee, worker, citizen, parent, child, friend, neighbour, or stranger. Time poverty undermines the wellbeing of societies and extreme time use inequalities create unnecessary and destructive social dissonance. If time use is distorted by power plays, financial needs, age differences, language and knowledge limits it can have destructive consequences. For us all to have the time to live well we need a mindshift: policy-makers who are willing to explore whether time can be better used than it is now.

Leave a Comment