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Hogne Öian

Clock time:
the enemy of the unemployed:

Being out of work, one’s everyday life ceases to be mastered by the clock time. Considering the seemingly ever-increasing speed and lack of time in everyday life in post-industrial societies, one could expect unemployment to be experienced as freedom from clock time. This could be so, at least in the Scandinavian welfare states where unemployment only to a limited extent leads to an immediate economical marginalisation. Nevertheless, what rather seems to be the case is that the clock time more than ever continues to cause frustrations. Before unemployment the problem was the constant relevance of clock time. Now it is the lack of relevance of clock time that becomes the problem.


Young unemployed I spoke to during my fieldwork in the suburbs of Oslo during the unemployment “crisis” in the beginning of the nineties expressed disturbances over the experiences of time as socially undifferentiated. Some were told by friends and families that there were no reasons to worry. – It will soon be a new job for you, just relax and enjoy it. You got all leisure now! But no real leisure could be enjoyed, since leisure tends to be a meaningful category, only in its opposition to work. Being unemployed is not only to be out of work, but also out of leisure.

Among the younger generation I could not find any unambiguous references to morality in these instances. In contrast to the generation of their parents leisure is something in its own right, and not something to be earned by foregoing hard work. Leisure is believed to contain activities just as substantial as work. In some respects the border between them becomes blurred, for instance when both are framed by the performance of life styles (Öian 2004). Consequently, the experience of being out of leisure is not necessarily produced by moral categories, but rather to cognitive categories.

Before unemployment there was always one was always short on time. Even after work or school one always had to hurry up for appointments with friends or schedules sports activities. Some were too engaged in a large spectre of activities and relations and did to get the sleep they needed. Hence, in some cases the initial part of the unemployment period was experienced as a relief from all the constraints of school and jobs had put upon leisure activities. Freed from the these kinds of obligation, some realised the dream of going to the clubs every night, while others became even more dedicated to the exercise of their sports or hobbies.

After short awhile frustrations nevertheless emerged. An informant summed it up rather precisely in the experiences she shares with many:

“I thought I could sleep a lot; do a lot of things there was no time for earlier, and the best of all; without any hurry. But it did not take long before I realized I just had far too much time. I could not enjoy all of it, because I could not find anything to fill it with. Time just heaped itself up, it did not move on. In the end it felt like nothing had its own time. The worst thing though, is that there is nothing much to look forward to. When at school I could always look forward to the end of the day. I always longed for the Fridays, and it felt like such a relief every time. Now I cannot have any real leisure, because there is nothing to have leisure from. All my time is spare time. But it is not proper spare time after all. In the long run, it does not feel OK at all. My time is not of any use. All time is the same”.

There was no leisure – no pre-defined periods of rest and time-out. Without a periodisation of time in work hours and leisure, whether the time is 3 pm or the calendar says Friday becomes indifferent. The next hour or day is not different from the one that just past. The same experience can occur while performing a meaningless job. There is one important difference: In spite of the dull routine of most work, the time is moving forward, driven by the clock and the calendar. All one has to do it to hang on and wait until the clock says end of working day or week. But without work, the calibrations of the clock and the calendar do not have the same social relevance, and the present becomes continuous (Nowotny 1994), and not something that is negated into the next minute, hour or day.

As several others informants reported, this situation implied a lot of stress. There were no predefined periods for relaxation or joy. All time becomes the same. To some the effect is staying up all night and sleeping during daytime, thus de-synchronising themselves with friends and others. In addition nobody needed the time of the unemployed because others were away at school or their work. People tend to buy all kind of services from professionals. The system of social exchange based on giving time is hence replaced by commodified and individualised time (Bourdieu 2000, Öian 2004). Although unemployed got plenty of time there are few opportunities of giving it to someone else. Unemployed are left with an abundant, but empty time only, because when time is not scarce, there is no time to invest (Bourdieu 2000:223).


In contrast to the theories of the long durée of Henri Bergson, Gaston Bachelard (2000) argued that what makes us experience time are the interruptions of processes. Retreating from the hassle of the city-life to the quietness of a mountain area, all there is is a continuous landscape, loneliness and no social interludes (Myller 2002). This experience is sometimes expressed in terms like ‘the time stops’ or ’the time cease to exist’. To some extent there is a parallel to be found in the situation of the unemployed. Marginalized from the dominant social practices of work, one’s life seems to be experienced as a continuous social landscape.

Primarily it is the social practices of wage work that makes this intimate interdependency between money and linear time into a social reality. To make it simple, the significance of money in this respect can be found in its contrast to an object, which value derives solely from its use. In a plough for instance there is written to plough, while in money almost any future possibility is written (Johansen 1986). In this respect linear time is a commodified time; time becomes money, and money becomes time. This is however both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Literally, as time is a scarce resource in productions and accumulations, metaphorically in that time can be saved and invested as a capital comparable to money. To be able to experience freedom from chronological time, one has to, by means of hard work and planning, save and invest time in order to earn time outs in terms of leisure.

The experiential meaning of leisure is in many instances exactly abolishing of the relevance of the chronological time, when for instance drinking in a pub with friends or hiking in the mountains. And the important point here is of course that this relation between time and money occur in processes where the orientation towards accumulation is dominant and provide the perception of a constant continuity between the present and the future. The forth-coming always means that a new present is produce, in other words, one is always directed into the future, always motivating ones actions by the expression of «because of» since the present is relegated to a context for realising the future.

Being employed, then, means an everyday life where there no obvious practical references to time as linear (Bourdieu 2000:221). What one does today or at this hour has no self-evident meaning as a realisation of tomorrow or the next hour. Without the daily engagement in work an important social structuring of motivations and directionality is lost. I’m not hinting at the drive for accumulation of capital only. Just as important is the distinction between work hours and leisure as spear time, which is both a social and moral one, but also cognitive in that the self-evidence of everyday life is lost (Öian 2004)


The concept of linear time can be divided into two aspects that are mutually related, but at the same time partly contradicting: On the one hand there is the chronology of the clock and calendar, which is best seen as a technical device in organising tempo and timing of social practices of both sacred rituals and mundane production (Adam 1995). On the other hand there is a dimension of linear time, which refers to the cumulating of actions and events. The present is understood as a cumulated result of past actions and events. Likewise, the future has to be produced by cumulating actions and events. The former measures movement, changes and duration in quantifiable units and is in itself non-generative (Ibid.). It is an empty form so to speak, that have to be filled with a content, in order to take advantage from it and transform it into a resource. The latter represents a social, qualitative and generative dimension of time, together with other processes that create movements and change, like the biological, physiological, psychological etc.

Still, for the cumulating process to become a cognitive and ideological category it is dependent upon the chronology that inhere in the metric measures of time: The clock and the calendar makes it possible to envision life as a line from birth to death. Nevertheless it is not the clock or the calendar that has made us into who we are, and it not the chronological measures of time that is going to produce our future. Because the clock is non-generative in itself, it is human action that brings time forward (Gault 1995:156). There is no chronological future; the future has to be made (Ibid.). Rather it is the cumulating actions and events that create our lives envisioned on a line. Every process of action that ends with an achieved goal means that the time is brought further on. Time has moved into the future and created a new present.

The way we experience time in modern society can thus be characterised by ambivalence. On the one hand the chronological time impose an objectified time that has it’s own life independently of human action. The time of the clock and calendar move on by its own force. In contrasts to other times it is finite, it runs it its own course, run out and away from us (Adam 1995:52). In both cases there are frequently used expression in Norwegian for these two interrelated experiences: Tiden går sin gang and tiden løper fra en, meaning that the time runs its own course and that the time runs away from one. In other words; linear time is something we have to produce ourselves, by transforming the abstract chronometry into resource. Otherwise it will make us feel left behind. In this manner linear time and clock time can be seen as an enemy, a kind of alienating force, but also as resource, something that can be saved and invested. The problems of the unemployed are that they are deprived of the social and cultural means of generating time, saving and investing it.


Adam, B. (1995) Timewatch: the social analysis of time . Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bourdieu, P. (2000) Pascalian meditations. Oxford: Polity Press.
Gault, R. (1995) In and Out of Time. Environmental Values 4:149-166.
Johansen, A. (1984) Tid är makt, tid är pengar. Malmö: Röda Bokförlaget.
Myller, Terje (2002) Mot en teori om tid - Basert på Gaston Bachelard, Pierre Bourdieu og et feltarbeid blant fjellturister i Nord-Sverige. Master thesis, Department of anthropology, University of Tromsö, Norway.
Nowotny, H. (1994) Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Öian, H. (2004) ‘Time out and Drop out. On the relation between linear time and individualism’. Time and society 13 (2/3): 173-195.