Time Banks: Rethinking Value, Labour, and Community

By Maverick Teo

What if there was a unit of currency in which the acts of giving and receiving could cultivate friendship and meaningful relationships? What if all time spent is of equal value? What if this currency could enable more active and fulfilling lives for people, especially seniors? As it happens, time holds the potential to act as this alternative form of exchange.

History of time banks

Teruko Mizushima, a Japanese housewife, started the world’s first time bank in 1973. The ideas on which Mizushima based her organisation Volunteer Labour Bank (now Volunteer Labour Network) stemmed from her experiences during the Second World War and post-war period when many Japanese faced great hardship and personal insecurity. As she watched those around her struggle to survive, Mizushima’s belief in the power of communities to deal with adversity grew. This fuelled her desire to set up an organisation to give members a greater sense of security and control over their future, as well as the opportunity to contribute to their community. The impact of inflation on people’s access to basic necessities led her to believe that money alone could not be relied on as a guarantee for a secure life. Mizushima believed that acts of giving and receiving time would not only create a more caring society but also value everyday tasks such as those of housewives.

Both borrowers and lenders

The fundamental premise of time banks is that time spent helping others earns you credits in return. These credits can be exchanged for help from other members in the community. While time banks are a form of volunteering, there are three unique strengths of this system. Firstly, all work is seen as equal. Regardless of the nature of work, from designing a website to repairing a bicycle, it earns the same amount of hourly credits. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us renewed awareness of the value of essential workers like nurses and delivery riders. Only when the majority of us retreated to home offices did it become painfully apparent of how much our society depends on them. Secondly, the giver and receiver are on an equal level. Volunteering in many contexts often involves the “privileged” serving the “needy”. As time banks operate on the basis of exchange, they seek to redefine passive recipients of help as providers of useful services. Time banks recognise that many people who may need help can actually help others in different ways. Thirdly, time banks promote community wellbeing. The sustained participation of members creates and reinforces an ethos of reciprocity. Such expectations and a sense of indebtedness build trust within the community as members continue to provide aid to one another.

When time banks were in their infancy, members relied heavily on various kinds of notes and paperwork to keep track of transactions. Since then, a range of online systems and software have been developed to facilitate the functioning of time banks. For instance, Time Keeper, developed by Time Banks USA, can produce personalised statements for each member, supply information to ensure that members do not go too long without a new assignment, and help to monitor performance systematically. European time banks allow people to make individual matches and search for opportunities based on geographical location.

Evolution of time banks

Sawayaka is a network of time banks which started in Japan in 1995. Initially dedicated to tackling the problems caused by an ageing population, Sawayaka now aims to support communities hit by natural disasters. The system works by issuing fureai kippu (“ticket for a caring relationship”) which become valid when the person who received help wrote down the details on the ticket. Tickets can then be redeemed for about 500 yen. Sawayaka decided to use their system following the devastation caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. People across Japan contributed money for this system which covered five different towns along the tsunami-hit coast. Shops even provided heavy discounts for tickets. What makes this currency unique is that it is time limited. They are not intended as permanent systems, and the initiative will end after it has helped to knit communities back together.

Palermo Time Bank was started in 2009 in Sicily, Italy, to support seniors by tackling their social isolation. Members can participate in various activities such as English lessons, medical consultations, cooking classes, and babysitting. Many seniors who used to spend the entire day in front of the television have immersed themselves in social activities and made new friends. The challenge is to encourage members to accept help for themselves. Members are more willing to give than to take because they are financially secure or too shy. Moving forward, the time bank is finding ways to expand membership and help some of the members to get jobs.

Old is gold

Ageing is widely regarded as a major social problem in many countries today. Singapore, like many mature economies, is facing slower economic growth and a rapidly ageing population. The proportion of citizens aged 65 and above has increased from 10.1% in 2010 to 16.8% in 2020. This number is projected to increase to about 23.7% in 2030.[1] Time banks could be an innovative means of helping Singaporeans live long, healthy, meaningful, and economically independent lives. It could also have the benefit of highlighting the contributions seniors can make to their communities.

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), an independent public policy think-tank, has proposed a time banking system in Singapore called Eldersave. Eldersave aims to reduce the load of caregiving from family and domestic helpers, as well as to provide caregivers the opportunity for flexible caregiving and work arrangements. This system recognises the value of essential non-market activities such as caregiving and volunteering. Relevant government agencies are currently studying how the idea can be implemented.

Time banks can empower individuals to give within their local communities, encourage us to see the value in every person, and to share with one another the resource we all have in common.

Maverick Teo is Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

[1] https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/media/files/publications/population/population2020.pdf

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