Image: Morgan Housel

Lateness has long been stigmatized. Not only is it viewed as disruptive at the workplace, it is considered a serious personality flaw that leads to failure. For many, unpunctuality is an affront. There is an overabundance of advice and instruction from supposedly “wise” people (mostly men, of course) telling us all about punctuality as a virtue. “That man who is regular and punctual will get sure success in all walks of life,” said Sivananda Saraswati, a Hindu spiritual guru. The false notion that punctuality is something indispensable for the world to function smoothly is inculcated into us from our early years and we find it hard to see it as anything but a moral obligation. Students are rewarded for being punctual at school and a disciplinarian culture works to numb them into compliance, shaping children into young adults that learn to adhere strictly to the status quo.

The understanding that punctuality is essential to all organized work is a capitalist construct, designed for an efficient extraction of labour and to maintain its unsparing control in the hands of a few. Punctuality as a potion for success is neither a universal fact nor is it common sense. It is an ideology. Early Marxist understanding of ideology would view it as  a false understanding of how the world operates.

How people see and manage time, has been described as a cultural spectrum with monochronic or polychronic at the two extremes. Monochronic cultures tend to do one task at a time, stick to tight schedules, see time as linear, and believe that “there is time to play and a time to work”. For them, punctuality is vital. Polychronic cultures, on the other hand, tend to be more flexible about schedules, see time as cyclical, don’t create strict boundaries between formal tasks and socio-emotional activity, attach importance to relaxation, and are focused on nurturing interpersonal relationships. Punctuality isn’t sacrosanct for polychronic people. In the Global North, it’s mostly monochronic culture that rules and, unsurprisingly, we are constantly being pushed towards looking at it as the most advanced.

Why must everyone believe in the “hustle”, a legacy of the “Great American Dream”—especially now that we can see that it has left everyone overworked and under-compensated? The rest of the world is always in a rush to replicate this American formula that deceives us into thinking that hurtling to be ten minutes early to catch up on pending work will help us get ahead in the rat race. This is precisely the kind of “work ethic” that breeds a chain of workaholics—communities whose values are subsumed by unending economic labour.

Just who can easily afford to be punctual? Take the example of two students who live in Delhi and go to the university for classes. One student is from a wealthy family with living quarters all to themselves in an affluent neighbourhood with good infrastructure; someone who doesn’t have to do their domestic labour, and has a vehicle at their disposal. The other is a student who has migrated to the city, lives in shared accommodation in a neglected neighbourhood, and has to get to class in public transport. It’s easy to guess which of them will be able to afford punctuality with relative ease.

People from economically weaker sections and marginalised communities can ill-afford the luxury of punctuality. Those facing systemic oppression have to bear the burden of the stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues that make it harder for them to be swift and on schedule. It's no coincidence that the construct of punctuality favours men. The sexual division of labour makes it harder for women to be punctual. A 2019 survey on time-use in India measured gendered participation in paid and unpaid activities. It revealed that women had to spend a lot more time in unpaid domestic services—as high as 81.2 per cent, while the share was only 26.1 per cent for men. Coupled with the additional labour women put in to comply with gendered norms, this division ensures that the odds are consistently stacked against them.  

The cult of punctuality is discriminatory and ableist, making no concession for the fact that we have constructed a world where everyday mobility remains challenging for disabled people. Even though everyone gets twenty-four hours in a day, the clock does not move in the same way for all. Punctuality is yet another privilege that rich, cisgender, white and upper caste men can afford, flaunt, and uphold as an innate ability. This vision serves the interests of this picket-fenced group while alienating every other community. The “chronically late” will be lectured, made to feel miserable about the kind of person they are, their character will be judged ruthlessly.

Those in the top rungs of capitalist work hierarchies enforce rigid schedules to make sure everyone falls in line. But it is only the most privileged who can afford this rigour required to reap the best rewards. For everyone else, it's a suffocating harness. A fairer work ethic would take into account the unfair hoops and hurdles that the marginalised have to negotiate with every day. We can very well work without rigid schedules and still be focused on the quality of work and the nurturing of human relationships. It isn’t chronic lateness that needs a “cure” but fanatical punctuality that needs to be abolished.