Friday Book: Big time for the small hours

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THERE WAS a time, not so long ago, when banks closed in the middle of the afternoon and did not open at all on Saturdays. Even large supermarkets closed their doors at 6pm and the few local shops which stayed open later carried a limited range of goods.

These days, it is not unusual to find bookshops open until 10pm and superstores which do not close at all during the week. If you live in a city and discover you have run out of bread in the early hours, you will probably be able to buy a rustic French loaf within a couple of miles of your home. A few months ago, in Western Australia, I went dancing in a nightclub in Perth until dawn, picked up breakfast at an all-night McDonald's and ate it on a beach overlooking the Indian Ocean.

These are all manifestations of Leon Kreitzman's subject, although it is a feature of his book that he has more to say about its functional aspects than its pleasures. Kreitzman, who is a marketing consultant, characterises the blurring of the temporal boundary between day and night as a social revolution, which has crept up on us without sufficient analysis. He sees it being driven by dramatic changes in the way we organise our lives, and made possible by advances in technology.

One of these changes is the emergence of women as a significant component of the workforce, rendering the old system of identical office and shopping hours obsolete. A woman who leaves her office at 6pm needs flexible shopping hours, especially if she is a single parent.

Globalisation is another factor, as multi-national corporations expect employees to work what used to be regarded as unsocial hours. Above all, though, Kreitzman's 24-Hour Society - quaintly capitalised throughout the book, as though it has paying members - is about consuming things, a state of affairs he regards as inevitable and mostly benign.

"Consumption may have transcended desire to become an end in itself," he concedes, "but rightly or wrongly consumption is the way in which those who consume pursue happiness. Maybe their time would be better spent in self-improvement by reading a book, growing vegetables or learning a skill."

In fact, there is not necessarily a conflict here, given that a move towards more flexible ways of using time should give people more choices, not fewer. But what most of us want to do, according to Kreitzman, is a narrow range of activities based around shopping.

The key role of this activity in his argument can be gauged by the opening chapter, a paean to "the most innovative leisure and retail development in Britain". It turns out to be a dreary-sounding shopping centre and multiplex cinema five miles outside Bolton. This is an unfortunate place to start, especially as the heading ("The Future is in Bolton?") irresistibly demands the answer "no". But it gives the flavour of what is to come in this superficial book - a warning that Kreitzman has missed rather a lot of tricks.

Although he admits the drawbacks of shift work, and suggests methods for making it more palatable, what he comes up with is not so much an exciting blueprint for the future as a depressing vision of a society in which people have little time to do anything but work frantically and shop. This is not my idea of fun; there are many activities I enjoy at three o'clock in the morning, but stocking up on groceries is not among them. Nor is it what I see other people yearning to do as I make my way home from a night-club.

At the same time, because it is market-driven, this new freedom brings anxieties, such as whether the staff of an all-night bar are content with their working hours. It is quite possible that extension of choice is being secured at an unacceptable cost to the workers who provide the infrastructure, especially as many of them do not belong to unions. Kreitzman is aware of some of these difficulties but unwilling or unable to grapple with them. This is in part because he thinks the drift to 24-hour operating is inevitable, so not worth disputing.

But it is also because he is interested chiefly in economics, leaving a conspicuous gap where the reader might justifiably expect a discussion of power. Is consumer demand really the only thing that matters? What happens to employees who discover they cannot adjust to working nights? The larger question, about the implications for government and society of a culture which remains open 24 hours, is barely addressed.

This is a shame, because the shift identified by the book is both real and accelerating. A more subtle social commentator is needed to assess its impact, and it seems unlikely that The 24 Hour Society will be the last word on this neglected subject.