Personal meaning in time in neoliberal economies

Time is an interesting concept. In contemporary neoliberal Western economies, it tends to be understood as chronological i.e. passing in a sequential and linear manner. Like the image of an arrow, this sense of time is absolute and deterministic; it tends to be goal directed and is used to measure the effectiveness or performativity of what we ‘do’ every day. This is clock time and it dominates how we organise our lives ‘by shifting the emphasis of everyday living and working patterns from variable rhythms to invariant ones’ (Adam, 1995: 47).

In neoliberal economies in particular, time has become associated with money because what we ‘do’ in time, especially in terms of paid work, measures productivity and sustains market growth. In this sense time, has a palpable performance orientation, because using or spending time efficiently and effectively is considered integral to profit and growth (Clouston, 2014; 2015).

Time does however have other meanings, both within the modern Western context and within the fabric of other cultures. Time, for example has temporal dimensions like past, present and future; it has tempo that creates the pace of life; time can hold a sense of place or belonging and can have mythic or spiritual significance. This concept of time is embedded in human unconscious, represented in folklore, creation myths, and legends (Adam, 1995).  Yalmambirra (2000) for example, articulated the difference between Western clock time and his own Australian aboriginal peoples, by describing how they, as a community, marked time as events in the year, celebrating connections between people and planet. In this sense, time is an aspect of self-identity, a form of connection with others, so relational in nature and so is a meaningful experience rather than merely a tool for performativity.

Intriguingly, this notion of time resonates with the history of my own Welsh culture, where history suggests the Brythonic Celts embodied a more interconnected and relational sense of time, marked by seasonal cycles and the circle of life (King, 1995). This was a slower sense of time, marked by spring, summer, autumn and winter, light and dark linked to planting, growing harvesting and resting, evincing the agrarian nature of life.

Celtic seasonal cycles of time

In a similar way, Greek mythology identifies how time was marked by the passage of the seasons and the sun, moon and constellations across the sky (Alis et al., 2006).  It is interesting in this context to note that chronological time originally takes its name from the Greek myths of Cronus, the King of the Titans, who created time when he separated Uranus (the sky) from Gaia (the earth). As King of the Titans, Cronus represented dominance and control over time and was an omnipotent and destructive force. He was eventually subdued by his own son Zeus, who, with his three daughters, the Horai, worked with natural the cycles of the sun, the moon and the seasons to create a world of interconnections, marked by a more meaningful, harmonious and relational concept of time focused on events and meaning in life as opposed to performativity (Alis et al., 2006).  Kairos, Zeus’s brother was also influential in this sense of an interconnected, relational and meaningful concept of time. He represented the ability to be spontaneous and experience the moment; thus perhaps an allegory for the mindful use of time in the moment as it unfolds. The lessons to learn is that Kairos and Horai offer the opportunity of a more meaningful and interconnected use of time in which we can live in the moment and regain a sense of wellbeing and connection in life.

This myth is an interesting allegory of our time; a moral and political tale asking us to challenge how we allow Cronus (chronological time) to control and dominate our lives and drive and measure human performance. This concept of time not only subsumes the notion of a more meaningful orientated use of time, but the autonomy and free will that accompanies choice in how we use our time.

This suggests we need to move to a more meaningful concept of time, one in which we, as the metaphorical Zeus, and the Horai did, engenders a sense of autonomy over the temporal experience and meaning of our own everyday life. This requires a revolution, or at least an evolution in our thinking to engender and value greater meaning in our daily lives rather than performativity. As Kairos would attest, perhaps the time to act is now.


Adam B. 1995. Timewatch: The social analysis of time. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Alis D, Karsten L, & Leoplod J. 2006. From gods to goddesses: Horai management as an approach to coordinating working hours. Time & Society, 15(1), 81-104. doi: 10.1177/0961463X06062280.

Clouston TJ. 2014. Whose occupational balance is it anyway? The challenge of neoliberal capitalism and work-life imbalance. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 77(10), 507-515. doi: 10.4276/030802214X14122630932430

Clouston TJ. 2015. Challenging stress, burnout and rust-out: Finding balance in busy lives, London, Jessica Kingsley.

King, J. 1995. The Celtic druids’ year: Seasonal cycles of the ancient Celts. London: Bandford.

Yalmambirra. 2000. Black time … white time: my time … your time. Journal of Occupational Science, 7(3), 133-37. doi:10.1080/14427591.2000.9686476.

Contact me here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: