Surviving in the world that never sleeps

The 24 Hour Society

August 20, 1999

Leon Kreitzman is too honest. It is not, admittedly, a handicap suffered by many authors. And it should hardly be a cause for complaint. But it can sometimes result - as it does in The 24 Hour Society - in a rather unsatisfying book.

This is a pity, because The 24 Hour Society is packed with important ideas and information. But it advances a hypothesis then starts tearing it apart. Like an ardent lover it makes a passionate proposal and then, spotting serious flaws in the object of its desire, withdraws from consummation.

As its name portends, The 24 Hour Society argues that modern societies are moving towards an era when, like the old Windmill Theatre, "we never close". The burgeoning of all-night shopping, eating, and entertainment facilities, together with round-the-clock international trading, continuous manufacturing processes, overnight transportation and - above all - the internet, are between them, Kreitzman contends, transforming our lives. "The old time markers," he says, "of night and day, morning, noon and night, weekday and weekend, are losing their relevance." We're looking at a steaming 24 hours a day, 365 days a year lifestyle here.

From 24-hour television to 24-hour dry cleaning, from homely Bolton to trendy

Barcelona, Kreitzman piles on examples of places and ways where the traditional 15 or 16 waking hour day is already being stretched. He even details proposals to

expand the day still further, to 28 hours (with a six day week), which in my view would be stretching things far too far.

Nobody would deny that the elongation of the day is happening, whether we like it or not. But Kreitzman goes further. He thinks we should like it. He thinks it is beneficial. He aims to proselytise. He believes we "need to find a new relationship with time" because the traditional day does not allow us to do the innumerable things we now need, and wish, to do.

First, work. Though prophets used to predict we would want to work shorter hours as we grew more affluent, the opposite has turned out to be true. Second, leisure. The cornucopia of leisure activities is overflowing, offering us - at least putatively - more pleasures than you can shake a virtual stick at. So we want to work more and play more. How can we do so without finding more time?

These pressures are exacerbated, Kreitzman continues, with a determined nod towards political correctness, for women. More and more women choose to work longer and longer hours, and they still do most of the housework - in or out of wedlock. But women also want to have children and nurture them, lovingly and unhurriedly. How, again, can all that be achieved within the present time constraints?

So much to do, so little time to do it. In consequence people are increasingly stressed out, as pill-popping proves, and are unhappy with the human condition, as research surveys prove. So far so good. Kreitzman has established both that the 24-hour society is an onrushing stream and that - on balance - far from drowning us it will irrigate our lives and make them more fertile.

But then he perceives some nasty obstacles in the way of this life-enhancing flow. First and foremost: sleep. He digresses, somewhat too lengthily, on the nature and mechanics of sleep and ends up - as all sleep investigations do - with no satisfying explanation of why we need to sleep at all. But the fact that scientists cannot fully explain our requirement for sleep in no way alters the fact that we need it. And in two fascinating chapters Kreitzman adduces the things that go wrong if we do not get enough of the nocturnal stuff.

Many leading researchers believe most of us already need more sleep than we get - one of the doyens of sleep research puts our nightly requirement as high as 9.5 to ten hours for optimal performance. People used to sleep much longer than they do today, and cat-nap more frequently too. Those who work at night perform less well and make more errors. The risk of injury on a night-shift is 20 per cent greater than on a day shift.

Night workers suffer from higher levels of indigestion, ulcers, constipation, diabetes and an increase in cardiovascular mortality roughly equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Their other nightmares include chronic fatigue, excessive sleepiness, difficulty in sleeping, increased irritability, higher divorce rates, lower sex drives, a greater incidence of substance abuse and depression, and a much greater propensity to view their jobs as extremely stressful. To mention but a tiresome few.

All that data come from The 24 Hour Society . And as you can see, they drive a coach and postilion of sleep-deprived horses through the arguments in favour of mucking about with our normal circadian rhythms. Talking of which, round-the-clock work has long been common in the transportation, medical, production line, military and telecommunications sectors. My dad worked 24 hour shifts in the 1940s. He didn't like it much. Nor did my mum.

No doubt Kreitzman feels duty-bound to air the anti-24-hour case. No doubt he hopes it will take the wind out of his opponents' sails. Well, yes. But he could easily have admitted a 24-hour society would not be all sweetness and nightlights without quite so much self-flagellation.

In consequence, he exposes a profound flaw in his argument. He believes that because there is demand for a 24-hour society it will inevitably, eventually, happen. It is a tempting mistake, commonly made in our consumer-driven economy. But demand does not guarantee supply. Human beings want myriad things they cannot have, often because the social or economic price is unacceptable. I suspect the social price of a 24-hour society is unacceptable.

Kreitzman may disagree. In which case he should have been less equivocal. Less even-handedness would have implied more conviction. Instead he opens his final chapter: "The idea of the 24 Hour Society receives a mixed response. For many of those who feel there are not enough hours in the day it is a blessing; to others who may be just as busy it is an anathema." It is as if Karl Marx had rounded off Das Kapital saying: "For many capitalism is a crock of horse dung; to others it is a highly efficient means of creating affluence." A polemic needs to be a tad acid. Neutralised, it loses its bite. Too much honesty is not always the best policy.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, the Bozell UK Group, and chairman, the Royal Institution.

The 24 Hour Society

Author - Leon Kreitzman
ISBN - 1 86197 104 4
Publisher - Profile
Price - £16.99
Pages - 176

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