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Normal Required Time
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Normal Required Time by Thomas Oberhofer

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Normal Required Time

Thomas Oberhofer

This article first appeared in the May-June 1969 issue of the Futurist under the title, Tomorrow? Who Cares? Thirty-eight years later, it is just as relevant if not moreso, than it was at the time. Who among us hasn't been infected by the time compression virus? Thanks to the author for permission to make it available on our site.

A recent editorial in Computers and People discusses the changes in what is referred to as normal required time. The editorial notes, "In the 1920s it was normal to require six days to travel from New York to London; in 1988 the normal required time is six hours."

Time compression has become a fact of modern life. The traffic light that takes 30 seconds to change or the computer that takes a minute to boot up or the checkout line where it takes five minutes to buy a week's groceries all have come to seem interminable delays. Time compression has made us a society of impatient people, anxious always to be "doing" or to receive the benefits of doing NOW.

This change in normal required time has profound implications for society in a host of matters. One of the most significant is the implication for our cultural time sense. A cultural time sense reflects the way a society positions itself vis--vis the future.

Societies tend to vary in their cultural time sense. For example, a society like Japan's - one that engages in planning today to position its industry to be competitive in the next century - is clearly a society with a fairly long time horizon. On the other hand, a society like that of the United States - one that is creating a tremendous national debt and has actually shifted from being a major creditor to being a major debtor nation within a decade --- is a society that reflects a much shorter cultural time sense.

Regardless of the fundamental way a society views the future, the time compression reflected by significant decreases in normal required time causes all societies to fight the battle of maintaining a "future focus." When in so many areas the payoff of actions is immediate - be it mathematical calculation, the speed of long-distance travel, or the rapidity of transcontinental data transmission --- it becomes increasingly hard to focus on or engage in activities in which the payoff is years away.

When we are impatient with the little things, it is hard to be patient with the big things. We see this in many areas of contemporary society. Financial markets in the 1980s have been driven by merger activity and corporate raiding as a means of capturing value. This is in lieu of the old-fashioned way of investing in productive capacity and building a business. Consumers have plunged into debt to enjoy a fling today, often with limited concern for the longer-term consequences of their actions. And the American people have tolerated the creation of massive federal indebtedness and the international erosion of their financial power in the world economy.

It appears that the reduction in normal required time is reinforcing our shortening cultural time sense. We face the challenge of accepting the reduction in normal required time as an essential benefit of technological progress while not letting our growing sense of impatience spill over to the abandonment of our commitments to the future.

Put another way, micro-impatience doesn't hurt us and is perhaps inevitable as we come to expect more and more from our technological cornucopia. However, macro-impatience can threaten our way of life if it means individuals, businesses, or governments abandon future-oriented social, political, and economic programs and projects.

Fighting a shortening of the cultural time sense is not easy, but it is not impossible, either. It requires a change in the way we think and in the way we structure rewards and incentives. Some questions can be asked to determine whether we are on the right path.

For individuals, is growing consumer debt becoming a way of life at the expense of future financial well-being? Is the decline in the savings rate a rational response to a more-uncertain future or an irrational turning of our collective backs on the future? And is our tolerance of bad economic policy an act of cynicism or political and economic indifference?

For businesses, are bonuses geared to quarterly results or to long-term performance? Are employees perceived as an asset to be nurtured or a cost to be contained? Are research and development expenditures treated as a drag on the current bottom line or as an investment in tomorrow? And are pension liabilities funded to meet future obligations or under-funded to enhance the perception of current performance?

For governments, is action being taken to bring the fundamental income-expenditure relationship back into line? And are adequate investments being made in the infrastructure at all levels of government, or is the capital stock of nations being allowed to decay, with its implied problems for tomorrow?

It is hard to swim against the tide, whether that tide is oceanic or cultural. Our cultural tide is running away from an active consciousness of the future, and it will take a special kind of leadership and awareness to stand against that tide. It will require us to act in ways that will yield payoffs tomorrow rather than today. And it will require consistency in pursuing the long vision at a time when society increasingly wants the quick return.

Our economic policies must be restructured to shift incentives away from immediate gratification toward the willingness to wait for returns. To do this will require nothing less than a change in the cultural mindset. And this change will require action today, not, as has too often been the case, "next year."

Thomas Oberhofer is a professor in the Department of Economics at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida.

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