[OPINION] Why life is fast: A sociology of time

Jayeel Cornelio
[OPINION] Why life is fast: A sociology of time
'Human resource managers call it efficiency. Sociologists call it dehumanization.'

And just like that another year is about to end. I think many of you know what I mean.

When I was in high school – and this was in the late ’90s – I had this strange fantasy that the world would end before the year 2000. Maybe it was the end-time preachings I heard in church. Maybe it was the Y2K bug. Whatever it was, I was convinced that an impending catastrophic moment would end life as the world knew it.

But just like that it’s now the end of 2021. 

Kids born at the turn of the new millennium are now my students in college. And those born in 2012, the other year when the world was supposed to end thanks to a movie that misrepresented Mayan history, are now entering their lives’ second decade. To these kids Windows 95 is history, Nokia an unknown brand, and the iPod old technology.

I don’t know about you, but since I turned 25 – and this was 15 years ago – life has become fast. And I wasn’t prepared for it. There are days I want it to slow down but for some reason it just keeps getting faster and faster.

Next year I will be a year older (again). I’m now at the age of the mentors I considered wise when I was in graduate school. Many of them turned 50 or so this year. A few of my high school teachers have already retired. And some of my older mentors have passed on to eternity.

Just like that.

Why life is fast

Life is fast and it’s not just an adage. Scholars have apparently studied this phenomenon.

There is, for one, a biological explanation here. According to scientists, we perceive time in terms of changing images. Mental time is thus different from clock time. 

It turns out that the mind of a young person has a greater capacity to process more images on a given day. So time for young people is mentally slower.

As a person ages, this capacity decreases. Thus for adults, we process fewer mental images over time and new developments seem to catch us by surprise. In other words, we don’t get to see the shifts around us the way we used to. We are thus surprised and then ask, “How did this happen? Where did time go?”

Sociologists also have a take on time. The way we define and treat time is indicative of bigger developments in history and economy.

The capitalist enterprise teaches us to make the most of our time because it has turned it into a scarce resource. Making time more scarce is competition – whoever delivers faster wins. 

In this light, technological advancements are not “neutral” scientific advancements. They are created in aid of efficiency. Think about it. Whenever new technologies are introduced in the market, advertisers tell us that they can help us do more with less time.

This translates to how we also behave as people. The logic of time management is to do more things in less time. 

Life therefore becomes much faster because you feel you have accomplished a lot more and you are rewarded for it. Case in point: Model employee of the month (or something like that).


Who bears the brunt when time is commodified like this? Answer: All of us. Our value as human beings is tied to what we are able to produce given limited time. 

Human resource managers call it efficiency. Sociologists call it dehumanization. In the words of John Hassard, “surplus value can be accrued through extracting more time from a laborer than is required to produce goods having the value of his wages.”

Nowhere is this most evident than in the routinization of our daily lives. One (Zoom) meeting after another. One email after another. One deliverable after another.

[OPINION] Why life is fast: A sociology of time

And even the most human aspects of our existence are not spared. Thanks to digital technology, finishing a degree, getting answers, and finding love (or sex) can all be accomplished right here, right now. Everything in life is now in the fast lane.

Therein lies the irony of the times we live in. Life is fast but it does not offer any excitement. If at all, we lead our lives preserving what is left of our humanity. 

But even that has to be accomplished in the most efficient way possible.

Slow down

Living in the time of a pandemic that drags on, many of us have lost the luxury of imagining life in the coming year. Sure, many of us are already preparing for the next normal but we also feel like living on the edge. Any decision we make today is most likely going to change tomorrow.

At the same time, in our desire to be as agile as possible, we forget that the people around us are in fact left behind. We even forget (or deny) that we are falling behind.

This much is true in schools. Part of my job now as an educator is to respond to the different needs of students who break down because of their inability to meet the expectations of their parents, peers, and professors. Among Filipinos, there are fewer optimists now than there used to be, a point I discussed in my previous piece for Rappler. And those who are grieving are asked to bounce back ASAP. 

In other words, the world is still operating in the fast lane, no matter how fragile that might be.

It is for this reason that I believe that pursuing a slower lifestyle is what can make life – and this world – sustainable. According to Wendy Parking and Geoffrey Craig, slow living is “a way of cultivating an ethical approach to the everyday.”

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To pursue a slow lifestyle is to be compassionate towards one another and nature.

But more important, to pursue a slow lifestyle is a protest against the commodification of time and the dehumanization of people.

It is in this light that I think we should reimagine what life in the next normal looks like: Can we make it more ethical? Can we envision a just future? Can we build a society where no one is left behind? 

Not many of us ask these questions but I propose that these are the most important ones. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD, is a sociologist at the Ateneo de Manila University, where he is the director of the Development Studies Program. He is a 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist awardee of the National Academy of Science and Technology. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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