In every job he has ever had, Gavin has shirked. When he worked in a call centre, he would mute the phone, rather than answer it. When he worked in a pub, he would sneak out of the building and go to another pub nearby, for a pint. His best-ever job was as a civil servant. He would take an hour for breakfast, and two for lunch. No one ever said anything. All his colleagues were at it, too.
When the pandemic began, Gavin, now working as a software engineer, realised, to his inexhaustible joy, that he could get away with doing less work than he had ever dreamed of, from the comfort of his home. He would start at 8.30am and clock off about 11am. To stop his laptop from going into sleep mode – lest his employers check it for activity – Gavin played a 10-hour YouTube video of a black screen.
One might reasonably describe Gavin (not his real name) as a deadbeat. In economic terms, he is a unit of negative output. In moral terms, he is to be despised; there are antonyms for the word “grafter”, and none of them are good. In religious terms – well, few gods would smile on such indolence. But that is not how Gavin views things. “I work to pay my bills and keep a roof over my head,” he says. “I don’t see any value or purpose in work. Zero. None whatsoever.”
Gavin’s job is an unfortunate expediency that facilitates his enjoyment of the one thing that does matter to him in life: his time. “Life is short,” Gavin tells me. “I want to enjoy the time I have. We are not here for a long time. We are here for a good time.” And for now, Gavin is living the good life. He’s a time millionaire. “I am delighted,” Gavin tells me. “I could not be happier.” He is practically singing.
And his boss? “My boss is happy with the work I’m doing,” he says. “Or more accurately, the work he thinks I’m doing.”
First named by the writer Nilanjana Roy in a 2016 column in the Financial Times, time millionaires measure their worth not in terms of financial capital, but according to the seconds, minutes and hours they claw back from employment for leisure and recreation. “Wealth can bring comfort and security in its wake,” says Roy. “But I wish we were taught to place as high a value on our time as we do on our bank accounts – because how you spend your hours and your days is how you spend your life.”
And the pandemic has created a new cohort of time millionaires. The UK and the US are currently in the grip of a workforce crisis. One recent survey found that more than 56% of unemployed people were not actively looking for a new job. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that many people are not returning to their pre-pandemic jobs, or if they are, they are requesting to work from home, clawing back all those hours previously lost to commuting.
“We’re seeing this great resignation,” says Charlie Warzel, the author of the Galaxy Brain newsletter and co-author of the forthcoming book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. “People are quitting their jobs and not returning to work, even if their unemployment benefits are running out.”
The people actively embracing a less work-focused life are, generally speaking, childless members of the professional classes, but Roy argues that this shouldn’t have to be the case. “If society was truly progressive,” she says, “it would not work people to the bone in the first place, or make the assumption that leisure, time to rest, time to be with your family, is only for the wealthy.”
The enforced downtime of the pandemic caused many of us to reassess our attitudes to work, and whether we might be able to lead less lucrative but more fulfilling lives. “I got on a train last week at 7am,” says Samuel Binstead, a 29-year-old coffee shop owner from Sheffield. “And some guys next to me sat down and the first thing they did was get out a laptop and a stack of papers. All I could think was: ‘You are not in the office yet, and you’re already trying to get a head start on work, because it must be the most important thing to you.’ I felt sorry for them.”
Binstead is a recovering workaholic. Pre-pandemic, he ran a 50-cover wine bar in central Sheffield. He would start work at 10am and leave at 1am, five days a week. On his days off, he would do paperwork. “I don’t think I realised how close I was to complete burnout,” he says. “I was using work to cope with work. Being there seemed to be my only option.” His mother didn’t bother inviting him to her 50th birthday, because she knew he would be busy. “She was probably right,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to get the time off.”
When the pandemic hit, the sensation of relief was overwhelming. “It completely changed my relationship with money,” he says. “Having the time at home was so much more valuable to me.” In September 2020, Binstead closed his wine bar and moved his business to a smaller unit. He sells coffee in the morning, and closes for the day at lunchtime. Turnover is down 75%. In the afternoons, Binstead practises photography, or sees friends. He has no career goals. “I just want to do what I’m doing for now,” he says. “Live a lot more presently.” He estimates that he is “100 times happier” than he was before.
He also started from a better place than many would-be time millionaires. As things stand, working less is not an option for minimum-wage workers facing a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, or parents struggling to pay exorbitant childcare costs. “I want to be very clear,” says Isaac Fitzgerald, a New York-based writer. “I am very lucky. I am 38. I don’t have children. I understand what a luxury it is to be able to take three-and-a-half hours out of my day to go for a walk.”
In a New York magazine profile last month, Fitzgerald, a former BuzzFeed books editor and author of a popular newsletter about walking, Walk it Off, cheerfully described himself as a time millionaire. He began what he calls the Walk Off project after realising that he had “been living in New York for seven years and barely knew the city”. The enforced ellipsis of the pandemic opened new vistas for Fitzgerald to explore on foot. “I realised that I wanted to walk,” he says.
Pre-Covid, Fitzgerald regularly worked 80-hour weeks. “My calendar was meetings upon meetings upon meetings,” he says. “I had this feeling there was never enough time, and that added to my anxiety. That ‘tick tick tick’.” Fitzgerald has now reduced his hours to 30 a week, and his income by 50%. Time is his greatest asset, and one he guards jealously. Time away from his desk is a walk in the Catskill mountains beside waterfalls; it is finding shipwrecks on Long Island beaches. “It’s almost like I am doing my best to protect my time now,” Fitzgerald says. “That comes with being a time millionaire. Just as one would want to protect one’s investment, I protect my time.”
“There’s a movement here that feels pretty organic,” says Warzel. “The pandemic was this massive controlled experiment in forcing people to embrace a different way of working. And what we saw was the opposite of what executives had been telling employees for decades: productivity and profits [rose]. Now, people are wondering what else employers were wrong about. What other ways of working have gotten out of sync?”
View image in fullscreen‘Just as one would want to protect one’s investment, I protect my time.’ Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian
The UK workforce is stressed out, overworked and underpaid. British people work the longest hours in Europe, the equivalent of an extra two-and-a-half weeks of unpaid overtime a year. Wages have not kept up with inflation, meaning that in real terms, earnings are lower than before the 2008 financial crisis. “Isn’t it time to question a system of productivity that pushes so many people into jobs and industries that are unsafe, that pay low wages for long hours of work?” asks Roy.
But decoupling our self-worth from the credits flowing into our bank accounts and the titles on our business cards is not always easy. Many people’s self-esteem is bound up in their work. “There is that niggling doubt,” Binstead admits. “Do people think I’m lazy?” Our society celebrates overwork as a symptom of great moral probity. “It creeps into every part of our society, this hustle culture,” Binstead says. “If you’re not busy or trying your hardest, you’re a lesser person somehow.”
It was not always this way. In pre-industrial Britain, the wealthy elite were defined by their ability to not work, but live off land rents and capital investments. With the advent of industrialisation, and the emergence of an upwardly mobile middle class, industry replaced leisure as a marker of respectability.
The contemporary iteration of this values system emanates from Silicon Valley. Elon Musk is known to work 120-hour weeks, scheduled into five-minute meetings. In her autobiography Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes about answering emails from her hospital room, the day after giving birth. “Silicon Valley is a place filled with workaholics,” says Alex Pang, the author of Shorter: How Working Less Will Revolutionise the Way You Get Things Done. “The default is to talk about how many hours you are working. Managers count how many cars are parked in the parking lot on Sunday nights.” Not content with exporting its brutalising work culture, Silicon Valley has also innovated devices to tether us to our offices. “The fact that we carry our offices around in our pockets has made being always ‘on’ a moral imperative,” says Pang.
As a result, leisure has become a dirty word. Any time we scrounge away from work is to be filled with efficient blasts of high-intensity exercise, or other improving activities, such as meditation or prepping nutritionally balanced meals. Our hobbies are monetised side hustles; our homes informal hotels; our cars are repurposed for ride-sharing apps. We holiday with the solemn purpose of returning recharged, ready for ever-more punishing overwork. Doing nothing – simply savouring the miracle of our existence in this world – is a luxury afforded only to the respectably retired, or children.
“In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living,” writes Jenny Odell in her anti-productivity tract How to Do Nothing, “and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook … time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing’. It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.” Odell exhorts readers to recognise that “the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are … enough”.
The calls to end the fetishisation of overwork, and its concomitant self-optimisation culture, are gaining traction: both the UK and US have prominent campaigns for a four-day week. Futurists such as Pang advocate a world in which technology is not a straitjacket but a force for liberation, enabling “us to be more productive in ways that allow us to reclaim more of our time”. Pang quotes approvingly from Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness. “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all [but] we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines,” Russell wrote. “In this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.”
Until that changes, a more radical approach to our fetid working culture might be to unstick time entirely from notions of capitalist value. “I like the underlying concept of being a time millionaire,” says Pang. “But I’m not sure I like the name. It sounds economical and transactional. What I do like is the idea of placing a greater value on time, and recognising its scarcity, and importance.” After all, we cannot accrue time, or invest it and watch it grow. It runs away from us; we slip and slide in its wake. Perhaps time isn’t a bank account, but a field. We can grow productive crops, or things of beauty; roses for the pruning and topiary hedges to be trimmed. Or we can simply do nothing, and let the wildflowers grow. Everything is of beauty, everything is of equal value.