For the past fifty years, the only so-called ‘watches’ worn by young people have been garish, interchangeable, gimmicky things; accessories rather than real watches. That’s because young people’s relationship with time has changed hugely. Sociologists have now started taking an interest in the subject, revealing how young people have developed this particular approach to time since becoming “hyperconnected”. The watchmaking industry, meanwhile, mostly has a lot of catching up to do.
The issue has been haunting us for several years, more pressingly so ever since Peter Stas made the frank admission that his regrets included being “unable to find a way onto young people’s wrists” – and that was back in 2011. Indeed, this individual confession has been true of the entire industry, ever since the renaissance of mechanical watches in the early 1990s. But nobody bothered to look into why that should be, since there were no problems in the adult market. Or at least, not until now.
Today, though, it’s high time the subject was researched – more than high time, perhaps. An investigative piece on young people and time might sound a bit pretentious. After all, there’s no such thing as time, or indeed “young people”. Time is perceived differently by different people; “young people” is a fluctuating sociological category. A century ago, someone aged 14 was held to be young simply because people tended to die at 50. But today, in the West at least, youth tends to be defined in socio-professional terms: “young people” means anyone who is not yet fully independent, because they are not yet on the job market. The term has become something of a catch-all for everyone who has lost the privileges of childhood but not yet inherited those of adulthood.
Is youth the “ungrateful age”? Very probably, but through no fault of its own. In peak physical condition and at the height of their intellectual abilities, young people are like future beings trapped between two very different worlds – the freedom of childhood and the obligations of adulthood. So it’s hardly surprising that getting a handle on their relationship with time is such a challenge.
There are some clues that can help us make sense of it, though. As the watchmaking industry struggles to get its timepieces back on young people’s wrists, it would do well to note them. It’s blindingly obvious that the industry is failing to connect with young people because it no longer understands their relationship with time. Watchmakers are still trying to impose the “dad’s watch” recipe on the younger generation – and as has been seen, this is doomed to failure, because the latter are living in a hyperconnected world.
Research by Schehr (1999), Lachance (2011) and others has identified time as a means by which young people achieve autonomy. Children’s time is organised around them: parents plan their day around their offspring’s nap times and mealtimes. Adults’ lives, meanwhile, are structured by social norms, with time governed by professional obligations and social engagements. Young people’s lives are caught between these two tensions, as they strive to find the right balance.
Gaining control of time is one of the first ways young people break out of the age of childhood – whilst also setting themselves firmly apart from the age of adulthood, perceived as a period of slavery. This is clearly seen in the teenager who says “I’ll be down in a minute,” when his parents tell him that dinner is ready; or the teenage girl who’s supposed to be back from her evening out at 10pm, and who invariably fails to return before ten or quarter past. Contrary to popular belief, this is not so much a sign of teenage rebellion, but first and foremost a way of signalling independence, as teens take full and conscious control of their time. “I manage my time, therefore I am capable of managing myself, therefore I am autonomous,” goes the reasoning. Or in a nutshell, “desynchronisation is emancipation”.
Adults consider time to be all about getting old, whereas young people see it as a means of escape. Adults put up with it; young people seek to control it. It may be wryly observed that some adults, fed up with enduring the rigours of time, decide to defy it or even taunt it. One by-product of this is the fad for skull watches – the ultimate combination, on the same dial, of the death they are fleeing and the time they are defying. It also explains why these watches are a total flop amongst young people, who do not as yet see time as an enemy, but rather as an ally that can help them achieve independence.
It virtually goes without saying that the further on in life one is, the more one can look ahead. A sensible adult can project into the future over several years on the basis of their socioeconomic environment and the usual life events: expected promotions, marriage, children, and so on. Children rarely think beyond the week they are in, their homework, or at the very most the next school holidays. Young people are in between these two attitudes. They are often seen as being in a transitional phase between the short-term vision of the child and the long-term vision of the grown-up. This is, however, a mistake. There is no gradual lengthening from short to long-term vision, no “averaging out” between childhood and adult time that might offer us insights into teenager time.
Young people usually react in terms of compression and decompression. Compression is primarily a phenomenon associated with their studies. The higher the level of study, the greater the pressure – and the more time is compressed. As has already been seen, time is a way of young people gaining autonomy, and they find it very difficult when time is compressed by academic pressure. The extreme alienation of young people’s time can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, or even suicide – because time is their road to freedom. Taking away young people’s time blocks their path to independence. “Time has become a stress factor,” admits Loane, a first-year medical student. “Time scares me, because it’s passing too quickly.” In short, while young people need to be prepared for the long-term projection adulthood entails, doing so compresses their time – depriving them of freedom and holding them prisoner in the short-term time of childhood, where they can see little further than one day ahead, precisely when they have incredibly intensive tasks to complete! Such an environment inevitably leads to breakdowns, because the natural relationship of young people with time is destroyed.
From this it follows that young people need to be able to use time to mature; but in contrast to adults, they see time as elastic. Young people today experience time in a non-linear fashion. The reason for this elasticity can be summed up in one word – internet. The web has allowed young people to develop a form of “atemporality”. The most striking example of this is social media. Facebook, for instance, is a communication channel based on an absolutely unique concept in history: the timeline. In other words, it’s an open-ended option of sharing a present moment, envisaging the future, and remembering the past – by continuing to write about it, share it, and comment on it.
This creates a virtual time-space that is wholly disconnected from reality, allowing young people to juggle with the linear nature of time as they wish, build shared memories, edit them, alter them – and even delete them. Facebook is not just a social medium: it is also a place where collective memories, disconnected from real time, are being forged. And understanding young people’s relationship to time also entails getting to grips with their ability to travel at will in non-linear time.
Young people’s elastic relationship with time usually surfaces in images, and understanding it also entails understanding their relationship with the latter. In today’s adult world, or that of our parents, still photos dominate: a framed photo of the kids in the living room, a photo of the grandparents on a wall, a family holiday snapshot on the bedside table; single, isolated, immutable pictures; the iconic “photo on the mantelpiece” we all saw at our grandparents’, conveying a memory shared only by those who were there, visible only to guests in our home.
Young people live in a “pictoral-temporal” dimension that is the exact opposite of all this. Images are no longer personal, unique, capturing a moment. They have become ubiquitous, are perfectly controlled, and are made available to all and sundry. When a young person shares an image, they are simply placing a temporal marker in the life and community of their peers. Whether it’s on Instagram, Snapchat or some other platform, the same principle is at work. The message is: “I’ve had some me time, I’m in control of it, I’ve immortalised it, and now I’m sharing it so my peers can comment on it.” And, invariably, so that it becomes part of a never-ending present, one that can never be deleted.
Different people therefore experience time differently. Emile Durkheim was already saying as much back in 1912. But the hyper-connectedness of twenty-first century youth has drastically changed their relationship with time. As we have seen, it is not an approximate average of child time and grown-up time. It is a means of emancipation. Above all, it is non-linear, embodied chiefly in community-based relationships and the massive use of images – and therefore of the ego. In this perspective, young people are bound to find instruments for telling the time utterly pointless. Where’s the sense in them having a chronograph to measure linear time when they want nothing to do with it? Young people’s time consists of compression (imposed on them) and decompression (when allowed). And it’s no accident that this decompression always defies time in some way: the night owl lifestyle of teenagers, rave parties that last an entire weekend, and suchlike. Nothing that marks out regular intervals in time, be it religion, timetables, or any kind of calendar, has any appeal at all for young people: they prefer time they can control – elastic time.
This means that the traditional mechanical watch will continue to struggle to appeal to young people. It enshrines a bygone, linear, disconnected, personal world, whereas young people’s time is all about community, connection, and elasticity. For our forefathers, time was bound up with Kundera’s “fields of the possible”, the promise of a new dawn, and of continuous, sure, and certain progress. Today, young people’s time revolves around questions rather than answers: will I find a job? What will the planet be like in 50 years’ time? Who will I look to when my parents aren’t around any more?
Young people can no longer identify with the values embodied by “Daddy’s watch”, family heirlooms, and the vision of time these represent. This explains why the vintage style has won over an entire adult generation that knew something of that age of promise – and left many young people absolutely unmoved, since they perceived this style as nothing more than a relic of an era they will never see. Vintage style reassures those who experienced it directly, or saw it from fairly close at hand – but it’s a source of anxiety for young people, for whom it is nothing more than the vestiges of a lost world. All that said, some watchmaking ventures do appear promising. The smartwatch undeniably offers a promise of digital community that mechanical watchmaking cannot hope to fulfil. Timepieces with a link to achievements and clubs draw people together, thereby contributing to the community dimension that young people find so important. Those who play with time find the idea of owning a watch such as Yohan Blake’s or Usain Bolt’s very meaningful; both these men have used time to set themselves free.
A timepiece where you can pause time would also be completely in keeping with the temporal elasticity so dear to young people – even though the current prices of such timepieces unfortunately make them unaffordable, simply because they are mechanical...
Over the past few years, certain brands can be justifiably proud of their relationship
with young people: Fossil and its various licensing agreements, including with
the very effective Michael Kors, along with Festina, Ice-Watch, Daniel Wellington,
Calvin Klein, and others. Their success is undeniable – though often short-lived.
Young people’s tastes change quickly, and none of these brands has managed to
stay with them through their transition to adulthood. Such brands offer must-have
appeal to young people, rather than the sense of conviction relied on by traditional
watchmaking, based on an objective, reasoned value proposition and a sense of
heritage – and this gap between appeal and conviction appears to be pretty much
However, attempts are currently being made to close this gap in two different ways. One involves having a single brand with two separate horological offerings: for instance, TAG Heuer’s “full basket” strategy, ranging from its Connected watch through to its traditional mechanical watches. The other is more clear-cut: one brand with a number of sub-brands, each with its own particular target; witness Armani’s “controlled dispersion” with Armani, Emporio Armani, EA7, Giorgio Armani, Armani Jeans, and so on. The first strategy involves a broader line of fire; the second, more guns. Both approaches are correct in how they view young people: as fast-moving targets.
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