Rewinding the body clock

The distinctions between weekday and weekend, day and night, are eroding fast. But who will benefit?
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So We Are becoming a 24-hour society. We are making twice as many phone calls after 11 at night as a decade ago, doing a third of our banking transactions after hours, and shopping for paint at four in the morning - we are, in short, "losing the distinction between night and day".

This evidence comes from a consultancy called the Future Foundation, which has been analysing the growing disregard for traditional timetables. Consumers have developed a fierce appetite for 24-hour living, say the directors. Gone are the days when people queued for bread, saved up for consumer durables, waited for the shops to open. They want things now.

Hence the DIY chain B&Q's recent experiment with all-night opening. On Easter Thursday it kept the automatic doors of its echoing Wandsworth store unlocked through the night for this new breed of shopper with an unquenchable need for paint and compost in the small hours.

And did this impatient consumer actually exist? Oh yes, says store manager Robert Nolan - up to a point. "There were no records broken, but there was a steady flow. It was very, very interesting: it's amazing what people will come in and buy."

And what did they buy? "Well, there was a lady who said we had virtually saved her life - this was at 2.05am - because she wanted some rose bushes. She bought six, in fact. I don't know why they saved her life. I didn't understand the significance of six rose bushes, but she certainly bought them.

"People were also buying paint and wallpaper, compost, garden watering products and furniture. One middle-aged couple had been shopping for 24 hours; they started the previous morning at 8am, and they arrived with us at 6am. They'd also been to the supermarket and done some high-street shopping. They actually looked exhausted."

That middle-aged couple and the rose-bush lady are at the coalface of a major social change, argues Michael Willmott, a director of the Future Foundation. "If you look at what's happening with evening shopping, and what's already happened with the huge popularity of Sunday shopping, it's clear that the distinction is going between weekday and weekend, and daytime and night-time. It's what consumers want. When you ask them, they say they find it irritating that doctors' surgeries, for example, are not open when they need them."

What did another man at the coalface make of all this? Ray Jackson, the manager of Tesco at Brent Cross, north London, has been experiment- ing with all-night opening on Fridays since February. "It's been extremely popular. I'm expecting this will build. It's got a very bright future."

Like Mr Nolan, Mr Jackson found that the biggest demand is between 10pm and midnight, followed by midnight until 2am, after which the store goes quiet. But the experiment had identified demand from previously uncatered- for night workers, both professional and blue-collar.

"Some people come in about 3am from one of those Far East banks, because they have to work the banking hours of the Far East. And we get a lot of taxi drivers and chauffeurs and doctors. We've also got regulars from a casino. They make two types of purchase: the distress purchase, which is usually milk, and the big shop. But we did get an unusual one: an author came in at 4am to treat himself to cream cakes because he'd just finished a book. (The licensing laws prevented him from buying champagne.)

"One of the big differences at night is that our catchment area is much bigger because it's so fast to get to Brent Cross when the roads are clear. And it is what I call a premier shopping experience: you're not queuing for tills, you're straight in, straight out."

Leon Kreitzman, a co-author of the Future Foundation's report - commissioned by BT/First Direct - sees the trend toward instant gratification as evidence that Britain is finally dissolving the traditional social frameworks that have in some cases been retained long beyond their relevance - the patterns of agricultural life, of the housewife at home, of the seasons.

"Until 100 years ago, people went to bed when it got dark and lived by natural light. What we are doing now is living our lives in a more artificial sense. The idea of morning, afternoon and evening is breaking down. When we went to the cinema in the evening, everything was closed when we came out. Young people now might go to the cinema, do some shopping in Tesco on their way home, get some dry-cleaning or have a meal. So we do a mixture of things in the evening that used to be confined exclusively to the morning or afternoon."

Shops are the obvious example of the new flexibility. But other businesses have cottoned on to consumer demand for late opening, partly the result of longer working days and dual-income families. Hairdressers and beauty salons increasingly open early and close late, as do dentists and medical centres. Even art galleries, such as the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds or the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, now stay open until 9pm one night a week.

Logically, it seems that other services must follow, especially when licensing hours are extended. In San Diego even schools offer flexitime: parents can choose whether their child attends the morning or afternoon package of lessons and the school itself is open from 6am to 6pm. Doctors' surgeries and town-hall services may have to open evenings or weekends. That bane of everyone's life, the company that will only deliver/repair/read the meter during working hours, will have to mend its ways.

The corollary to that, of course, is that society will fragment. When we can watch 200 channels on television, traditional staples of conversation that come from shared programme viewing will disappear, and if we can shop or work or educate our children round the clock then it will become harder to meet face-to-face.

That could, of course, have an impact on the nation's psyche. Will the 24-hour society actually be better for us? The dilemma is similar to the one created by the growth of mobile telecommunications: is it more or less stressful when we can be reached everywhere, all the time? Will 24- hour living mean we get less sleep and do our work less effectively?

"Research on that is a bit ambivalent," Mr Kreitzman concedes. "Some experts think we have a natural rhythm that we disrupt at our peril. Others take the view that we may be more adaptable than that. Personally, I think it's a good thing. I think New York is the greatest city on earth - full of excitement and energy and ideas right round the clock. And 24- hour societies can have a very positive effect on other problems. Congestion is eased. Crime goes down: the more people on the street, the safer it is."

One can imagine a scenario in which society becomes geographically polarised, with the all-nighters living in the cities and those who value a more natural biological and social framework in the country, snubbing the questionable luxury of 24-hour services.

But the reality in Britain at the moment is that we are, as the planners put it, "developing the evening economy". This simply means that shops and services stay open later but very rarely all night. Various cities have already signed up to this concept, which appears to promote investment and regeneration of derelict areas. Oxford, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow are all encouraging later opening and later drink licences. In Oxford, since the move began in late 1995, physical assaults have dropped by 13 per cent, sex crimes by 43 per cent, and domestic burglary by 20 per cent.Overall crime, however, is down by only 1 per cent.

Perhaps the last word should go to Dr James Waterhouse, a physiology lecturer at John Moores University in Liverpool. "The idea of a 24-hour society falls down completely from a physiological point of view," he says. "The reason for that is that we have a body clock which is genetically determined. Shift-workers have been studied for 35 years round the world, and it is observable that those who work at night perform less well and make more errors. Night-workers also suffer from indigestion and have a high incidence of cardio-vascular disorders and ulcers.

"Who wants to go shopping at night anyway when it's dark and cold? Personally, I think it's a crummy idea."