Time Is Money

Time Is Money

Once again, the US – and about 70 other countries worldwide – recently went through the annual spring-forward ritual of moving clocks ahead one hour, and they will all fall back a similar amount later this year. Change is in the air, however, to eliminate this long-standing practice. The EU is currently evaluating a permanent year-round adoption of “spring time” and hence the end of making annual daylight-saving time (DST) adjustments. A few years ago, the US meaningfully extended its summertime DST period by a few months, and last year California voters passed a statewide Proposition that enables its Legislature to end the bi-annual routine, though subject to Congressional approval.

The basic rationale of daylight-saving time is that it “gives” us an extra hour of daylight each day – during the March to November period that it now currently applies. But even non-early birds must admit that this is inherently misleading, because the sun still shines the same amount each day as it otherwise would throughout the year, regardless of man-made rules. As Ben Franklin was fond of saying, just wake up an hour earlier to capture the same exact benefit. But he only proposed sleep pattern changes, not systemic clock changes. Today, most major industrialized countries now implement daylight-saving time with the exceptions of Japan, India and China. Since there is less seasonal change in daylight hours for countries closer to the equator, most countries at lower latitudes typically do not use DST. Indeed, only about one-quarter of the world’s population falls under DST.

Industrial societies typically rely on consistent clock-based schedules throughout the year for all sorts of standardized daily activities – from train schedules to operating hours for factories and schools – and thus DST “buys” an extra hour of daylight for the entire population to enjoy during longer summer days. Agrarian societies, on the other hand, simply let the impact of the Earth’s tilt on its axis naturally dictate year-round habits. In fact, despite popular belief, most farmers in the US were not generally supportive of DST when it was originally introduced a century ago because it was disruptive to their normal seasonal routines. It was primarily urban and recreational considerations that eventually influenced the idea. However, it was more serious matters that originally got it started. Germany was the first major country to utilize daylight-saving time, and it did so during World War I to help conserve electricity used for lighting. Other nations followed suit. The practice then lapsed after that war but came back again for similar reasons during World War II, and then generally stayed in place after that; although it was not standardized across the US until the 1960s. The energy crisis of the 1970s then further solidified its use as a supposed energy-saving program.

Coincidentally, during that same post-war period of the 1950s and beyond, when DST really took hold, air conditioning also became far more commonplace; and thus, while DST has helped reduce some electricity costs – because it stays lighter later each day – conversely, air conditioning and various other recreational-related costs have increased, especially during hot summer months when people stay awake longer. So, economically speaking, DST has probably had mixed results and trade-offs. Moreover, many people increasingly oppose the annual time change because it adversely effects sleep patterns, and even causes depression for some. Losing an hour in the spring is harder to adjust to than gaining an hour in the fall; akin to “jet lag” when flying east across time zones. Where this leads is difficult to know at this point, but time could be running out for the bi-annual clock change routine. It could be that spring time simply becomes the new year-round standard. Stay tuned.

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