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This book was recommended via an RSA Animate on time that I throughly enjoyed so I thought I’d get the book and delve into the topic in more detail.

My feelings on the book are a little mixed. Some of the concepts and ideas that he raised were fascinating: the differences between cultures who lived on ‘monochronic’ time (who focus on one task at a time) and those that are ‘polychronic’ (and like to circulate round several tasks at once), and how the two approaches, if they can be brought together, can complement each other. He had also carried out some interesting research into the speed at which life is lived in different cities around the world, and in different American cities. Whilst the results of these were not unexpected they threw up some interesting results, for example, in faster cities the few people who would stop to perform helping acts – picking up a dropped pen, posting a dropped letter – tended to do it less civilly than in their slower paced counterparts. The book also raised interesting questions about the results of this work in understanding low achievement patterns: research has found that the children of low-income black adolescent mothers living in impoverished pockets of Chicago are found to be entirely present orientated, and that these children face real temporal barriers when they enter school, unable to understand why you need to do things at particular times and need to stop doing others when you were enjoying them, and as a result becoming increasingly frustrated and isolated.

However, I did have some issues with this book. Whilst the first edition was published in 1997 it didn’t seem to have been updated at all for the second, 2006, edition – references to research that would have been old in 1997 (from the 80s and 70s, and occasionally the 60s) had not been updated or added to by more recent sources – for example, discussions about Saddam Hussein were limited to the first Iraq war. In addition, Levine seems to rely a little too heavily on outdated models of human behaviour. He discusses Type A and B behaviour types with no mention of the criticisms of this model and argues that type As are drawn to ‘fast’ cities that then make these individuals stressed and more likely to smoke, and therefore suffer from coronary heart disease. But even if the type A link to heart disease is taken uncritically there is no need to add the link to temporal factors. In fact, later on Levine argues that type As may be more comfortable in fast paced cities, as they can become stressed by a laid back pace of life.

So, overall, whilst this book contains some interesting research, anecdotes and theories it is not to be swallowed without criticism – some of the research if very old and the theories put forward do not always stand up to closer scrutiny. But it’s still an interesting book that could help us live more comfortably and productively with those who live life at a different pace to us.

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Willetts’ thesis is that the baby boomers have had more than their fair share of the luck, and the money, and that they should give some of it back.

He argues that as the baby boomers were a large generation, with a small generation ahead of them, they had less pensioners above them to pay for and more of their own generation to spread the costs amongst. To protect their living standards in the face of the wage pressures of being a larger generation they delayed having children and had fewer of them. In addition, the social change of working women becoming the norm allowed them to increase their living standards further. Then, just as the baby boomers might have felt the pinch – a smaller generation of workers coming behind them pushing prices up through more expensive labour – globalisation happened and delivered the extra workers needed to keep labour and products cheap. Willetts argues that all of this has allowed the baby boomers to have the best living standards in history and to accumulate wealth at an untold of rate.

The pinch of the title is that of the smaller generation coming up behind the boomers (and perhaps the arguable ‘pinching’ of assets by the baby boomers that should have been left for intergenerational transfer). They are left with a large ageing population who are not willing to give up their high standard of living as they grow older – so are spending their savings rather than passing them onto the generation below, as they have done historically. They are also delivering a pensions crunch – more people will become pensioners in the next 5 years than did in the 10 years beforehand, and their pensions will have to be paid for. Meanwhile, the boomers accumulation of assets has pushed up house prices and made it very difficult for the generation below to get on the housing ladder. 

So what is Willetts’ answer to the pinch? Unfortunately that’s where it all starts to get a bit fluffy (as a member of the generation behind the baby boomers I declare an interest in solving the issue if at all possible). Willetts seems to be arguing for politics to drive a change, creating a return to the intergenerational social contract. But he never actually seems to get down to the issue in the sub-title – whether and how the baby boomers could give their children’s future back. And realistically, with the baby boomers reaching pension age – entering the demographic most likely to vote – and with there being more of them than the generation behind, it doesn’t seem a cry that politicians are likely to heed any time soon.