Time pressure alienates youth in mobile internet era

By LIAN SI / 01-21-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Food delivery men race to meet deadlines amid a sudden rainfall in Jinhua City, Zhejiang Province, on Aug. 12, 2021. Photo: CFP

When considering the sociology of time, age is a key element used by society to define the structure of life. It outlines a time series for life, and also contains norms, so that people are assigned with different expectations and social positions at different stages in life. 

In our study of youth, we propose to revisit the neglected primary problem of youth—time—to obtain a more comprehensive and profound understanding of youth. The data used in this paper involves three firsthand social surveys, all of which were carried out among employed youth under 35 years old in highly-populated cities. Though the three surveys were conducted in different cities, and focus on different groups, they reveal the impact of time on youth from different aspects.
Pressure of countdowns
In the mobile internet era, logistics platforms boast speed as the core competitiveness of enterprises. With the development of smart retail, instant delivery calculated by-the-minute has become the new professional standard for the logistics industry. In the whole system of logistics, parcel and food deliverymen work at “the last kilometer” of the service chain. All delays earlier in the sequence will transmit and superimpose themselves on those at the last stop, who then must ensure relative efficiency under great pressure. For the platform, time means efficiency and time represents market competitiveness. They promise consumers shorter wait-times, which in turn translates into a hardline requirement for practitioners.
Our survey found that food delivery apps display a countdown for the employee, and the system sends a reminder and a warning when the deadline is near. Now, the countdown mechanism has been widely adopted by various internet platforms such as car-hailing services, community group purchasing, fresh food e-commerce, and instant messaging. This will result in anxiety and tension spreading to more members of society. 
At its core, the countdown is not only a working mechanism, but also a means to construct a behavioral pattern. It normalizes the belief that delays are unacceptable through psychological construction and domestication, so that workers are completely “alienated” and become slaves to time. There is no doubt that countdowns improve efficiency and time use, but it also over-exploits time, pushing it beyond human nature.
The prevalence of countdowns is the manifestation of an accelerated society. The generalized use of countdowns is the latest alienating form of accelerationism. Despite bringing more convenient and efficient cooperation, it binds us by accelerating social utility. Today, we’re in a hyper-alert state, aware of all manners of countdowns, even without a ticking device. Even scarier, once the countdown begins, our accelerated state itself also accelerates, so that every man in the rat race unconsciously races harder. It feels that there is never enough time, and one small break will lead to falling far behind. It is exhausting and overwhelming for everyone.
996 schedule 
In China’s internet industry, a “996 schedule” (working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) is rampant. Why do internet companies openly disregard the legitimate rights and interests of workers? The key here is correctly defining overtime. If overtime does not exist, there is no need to pay workers for overtime. Different from the general understanding of overtime, overtime in internet companies does not happen entirely within the company’s physical space, so it is often imperceptible.
In the mobile internet era, smart mobile devices can be used for leisure and entertainment, as well as for work. With strong networking, interoperability, and portability, they have blurred the line between working and non-working scenarios and have become a powerful tool for boundary integration. Mobile devices greatly extend work and create invisible working hours for employees. They are increasingly free from time and space restrictions, and the boundary between working time and private time is increasingly blurred. Since the laborer can be found and summoned at any time, there is no time for the individual to be completely private and undisturbed.
Internet companies disguise their overtime practices with “flexible working hours,” which on the surface allows employees to work anywhere, anytime, regardless of space or time. However, instead of being a flexible arrangement for the benefit of employees, it is a glorified “forcible invasion.” Here, I want to use the term “intrusive time” precisely to highlight the invasion and encroachment of work on private time. This “silent” forcible intrusion occurs at the cost of an employee’s free time, so that laborers appear physically free, but it is never real freedom.
As a group that interacts most frequently with new technologies, cross-border use of mobile technology greatly consumes the mental and psychological health of youth. As it turns out, conflicts between work and life are more severe for youth. Without proper relaxation after work, they find it hard to effectively recover and regain physical strength and energy, so when they return to work, they are inefficient and exhausted. Such a vicious cycle has made contemporary youth feel “hollowed out.”
‘Academic tenure’
The tenure system is the predominant faculty personnel system in the vast majority of universities and research institutes around the world. The basis of this system involves signing a contract with clear time conditions when hiring employees. The employee workload is assessed upon the tenure review deadline. If employees fail to meet the conditions stipulated in their contracts, they will be dismissed. 
When the tenure system was introduced to China, many universities, especially leading universities, didn’t hesitate to adopt it. It should be acknowledged that to some extent, this system has improved the traditional university teacher tenure system by improving long-standing problems such as unclear affiliations to work units, egalitarianism, and seniority. However, it is not without flaws.
“Academic tenure” speeds up the cognitive output of scholars, but also reduces the possibility for scholars to engage in more in-depth research. Tenure review deadlines are mandatory and impossible to avoid. Therefore, in the case of long-term scientific research, the academic expectations of young scholars are lowered, and the breadth of research is cut. It is not surprising that young academics give up the possibility of pursuing great research, and indulge in rapid and attainable publication of small technical research results.
The elimination system that comes with such a tenure system has also been widely applied in other fields, forming the so-called “35 year old” phenomenon in society. At 35, the way individuals are securely placed or thrown out into the world changes dramatically. No one is willing to wait for an employee’s success and risk hiring someone whose work isn’t proven. It is safe to say that right now, society as a whole is very unfriendly to workers over 35. For programmers, 35 means a career change, and the same is true for food deliverymen.
Society has laid down a time track for professional development, and we set out along the track to form a schedule that society deems “reasonable” and “correct.” According to this schedule, individuals are stratified through qualification examinations and rising status, and social life is like a clock, ticking forward, while qualifications and status are jointly determined by social life or institutional structures. Most professions have their own milestones agreed upon by society, which includes when an employee should reach each position. If the expected results or a certain recognized position cannot be achieved within the given time, a career may “come to an end” for an individual. 
This means that many opportunities suddenly disappear in front of you, and you are denied the right to compete or the right to do a job. Even if a person has great potential, his future may be more rewarding than expected, but if he can’t prove himself before the deadline, he will lose the opportunity to prove himself forever.
Youth burnout
Time is a kind of power, and those who control the distribution of time and the interpretation of time, control social life. Nowadays, human beings have increasingly surrendered their control of time. It seems that some people dominate the time of others, but those with power are also controlled by time. It is no longer true that some people have a monopoly over the power of time; now time dominates all people, time has begun to show its tyranny.
Time’s tyranny is also reflected in that time has become the measuring stick of life, the highest standard of value. Time, which is supposed to exist within us, has been harvested by society to worship efficiency. Instead of enhancing our sense of time, the standards by which people are measured, recorded, and evaluated cause even our free time to be encroached upon, and we are unable to perceive ownership over time ourselves.
It is necessary to emphasize to young people the importance of not wasting time and striving for self-improvement. But at the same time, we must be wary to not overexploit youth, and must not resort to utilitarianism. Efficiency obsessives turn life into a journey of struggle and suffering to attain more wealth, money, and fame, and overlook the fact that youth itself is an important stage of individual growth.
Youth is meant to make society full of vitality and hope. It stands for the antidote to stubbornness, conservativeness, and rigidity, with eternal inner dissatisfaction and a spirit of endless ambition. Our institutional design should not exhaust young people’s physical energy, but should stress the moral importance of time, focus on the future development of young people, and let the inspiration of innovation become the origin for institutional design, so that the system is founded on the nature of the young.
Lian Si is a professor from the School of Government at the University of International Business and Economics.
Edited by YANG XUE