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Could a Time-Based Economy Be the Future of Work?

Money is tight, so more people are trading their time to barter for services they can’t afford. Could the ‘time bank revolution’ actually scale?

In 2010, amid the last financial crisis, Christina Ellis was devastated, scared and tired of being at the mercy of financial forces that were way out of her control. Her house had plummeted in value, her husband had lost his job and there wasn’t money for anything that wasn’t a necessity. “I was so stressed out and just wanted a massage, or someone to watch our dogs when we left the house,” she tells me. “But there were certain things I just couldn’t get because what little money we did have was going toward bills.” 

She found financial relief, however, in an unconventional source — the Long Beach Time Exchange, a local time bank where she could exchange hours she worked for many of the services she previously couldn’t afford. “I could still go get a massage; I could get someone to watch our dogs if we couldn’t,” she says. “All those things that I didn’t have access to before I now could access through the time bank.” 

Using time as a form of currency dates back to socialist “labor vouchers” in the 19th century, but the first official “time bank” was created by Teruko Mizushima in Japan in 1973. It’s evolved enough since then that as of 2015, per the Stanford Social Innovation Review, there were “500 registered time banks in the U.S.,” which enrolled more than 37,000 members. 

“It’s hard to find a unified vision among all the time banks, other than the initial premise that ‘one hour of my time is the same as an hour of your time,’” says Gabriele Donati, co-founder of the global time bank, TimeRepublik. In contrast to how the value of a dollar can fluctuate, Donati says that in a time-based economy, the currency is “inflexible.” “Because no one has more than 24 hours in a day, time is both the most scarce resource there is, and at the same time, everyone has access to it in equal amounts,” he continues.

Ellis, who now belongs to a time bank called hOurworld, echoes this sentiment. “People pretty much have to agree that everyone’s time is valued equally. Whether you’re a lawyer or PhD economist, an hour of your work is valued the same as an hour of the dog walker’s, or somebody doing laundry for me,” she says. “An hour is an hour, and there’s no way around it.” 

All of this can take you pretty deep into the weeds of economic philosophy, but ultimately, Donati says time banks want nothing to do with more familiar banking and financial systems. “We don’t want to operate on the same architecture as the market economy, because those dynamics end up creating transactions, and everything becomes merchandise from lives, to sex, to religion,” he says. “We want transactions to mark the beginning of a relationship, where trust can eventually form. Trust opens so many more doors than money, and thus, in a way, exchanging time leads to an infinite return on investment.” 

Despite the range of platforms for time banking, they all use varying degrees of the same system to track hours worked and hours exchanged. “Either side can record the time that was spent or received, and it will then notify the other person that the hours were recorded,” Ellis explains. “Once complete, the receiver goes in and decides whether they’re happy with the service and gives that provider a rating, kind of like eBay. If they’re not happy, they can renegotiate, get a refund or bring the issue to the admins to settle.” 

Donati’s profile on TimeRepublik

Given that our economy is tanking once more, time banks could step in to fill the same void Ellis found in 2010. In fact, she says she’s seen increased interest in the last few weeks already. “I created a group on Nextdoor that just said ‘Riverside Time Bank’ with an explanation of what it was. Next thing I know, a bunch of people were joining, then another 20, and all without hardly advertising it at all,” she tells me. 

To put that in perspective, in 2015 she says she tried advertising the group on several fronts — Facebook, putting up flyers, setting up a booth at farmers’ markets — and didn’t get much of a response. “That was probably because the economy was stronger then,” she says. “People had plenty of money, and not enough time. Well, now people don’t have money, but they do have plenty of time.”

“If cash isn’t a problem in your life, you probably wouldn’t need to be bothered with a time bank,” says Alex Deatherage, a member of Ellis’ time bank who works in marketing. Deatherage began exchanging his services in the time bank two years ago “when the last economic slowdown was recovering.” “It makes sense to work a few hours to have the option to throw my kid an awesome birthday party without spending an arm and a leg,” he tells me, adding that he mostly uses the time exchange for things that bring added value to his family — like a video game truck for his son’s birthday, or photographers and furniture rentals. 

“Not every interaction in life needs to have a price tag attached to it,” Deatherage continues. “And when all the fires are put out and the smoke is cleared, that’s when bartering or time trading will become a very attractive option. There will be less cash to ‘trade,’ but trading time will allow small operators to punch above their weight and work with a professional without taking a massive financial risk.” 

That said, many in the time-banking community, particularly Donati, have aspirations that aim higher than simple task-exchange platforms. “Time banking is a brilliant idea,” he says. “It’s remained in existence for 300 years, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be bigger.” 

And like Ellis, he’s sensing that the financial havoc created by the coronavirus could be the very thing that helps scale it. To that end, his TimeRepublik is being used by municipalities in Italy that have been bankrupted by the financial crisis. “Small towns have been abandoned by the state because there’s no more money, so basic needs like collecting trash and cleaning parks aren’t being fulfilled,” he says. 

Using TimeRepublik, however, these towns have been able to “pay” citizens for their time spent doing these services. “In exchange, municipalities offer their vacant space, which can be rented with time. So now they’re renting space for co-working or events,” Donati explains, adding they’re looking into ways for citizens to spend their hours on things like parking tickets, too.

All he needs for it to take off globally, of course, is just a little more time.