Is time on our side?

About the author: Wolfgang Mayrhofer is Professor at WU Vienna, Austria. You can read more at his web-page and contact him at his email address

“Ti-i-i-ime is on my side, yes, it is!”, crows Rolling Stones’ then juvenile lead vocal Mick Jagger more than half a century ago into the microphone, supported by his mates Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts (see, e.g. Viewed by some as one of the early heralds of the coming transformative years in the late 1960s and 1970s that would challenge much of the established order throughout WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, and by others as a simple love song by some (overly?) confident lover convinced of their own unique selling proposition, the lyrics of this song also invite reflections from people interested in careers, be it their own or as object of their scientific interest.

To start with, time. What is time? Arguably, St. Augustine, an influential Christian theologian and philosopher of the 4th and 5th century, captured the basics appropriately in one of his most influential works, ‘Confesiones’ (confessions):

“What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know. But at any rate this much I dare affirm I know: that if nothing passed there would be no past time; if nothing were approaching, there would be no future time; if nothing were, there would be no present time.“

(Augustine, 2006 [Orig. around 400]: Book Eleven, chapter XIV, section 17; italics in the original, translation F.J. Sheed).

A closer look reveals, hardly surprising, that a broad variety of scientific disciplines such as philosophy, physics, sociology, psychology, and organization studies have intensively dealt with time, emphasising very different aspects. One common thread running through most of the accounts is the implicit or explicit reference to the objective-subjective divide. The former refers to a Newtonian view of objective clock-time, where an external authority defines the standards. Nowadays, this is the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures and its choice of the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom of 9,192,631,770 Hertz and its use in atomic watches. At the subjective end of the spectrum, individuals (and, for that matter, also larger social systems such as groups or organizations) have their own account of time. For example, they differ in terms of their primary orientation – past, present, or future – and with regard to their future time perspective, e.g., how long they look ahead in order to think about their future. Various other conceptualizations have drawn our attention to phenomena such as temporal structures, e.g., meeting schedules, report deadlines, semesters, that provide orientation and support coordination, or social timetables that contain expected and desirable time-related aspects of social processes such as growing up, being promoted, or changing employers.

But on which side is time? The Rolling Stones (more precisely: the original lyrics by US-American songwriter and producer Jordan ‘Jerry’ Ragovoy) have a clear answer: time is on our side. But what would that mean, how can time be on anyone’s side and how would we notice on whose side time is? This addresses at least two issues often debated in the time literature.

The first is the question whether there is any time at all when no one is present to experience that time ‘passes by’. This points to the potential link between time and social phenomena. The second issue relates to that and speaks to the fact that time is not merely an abstract, objective phenomenon, but intricately linked to both space and actors’ interests, hopes, and worries. Climate activists pointing to the current times being the 11th hour in the history of our planet, filibuster speeches lasting for hours and days delaying the decision about a controversial topic, and project timetables indicating the causal relationships and relative importance of various elements of a project testify to the fact that time is not socially innocent, but plays an important role when it comes to political struggles, advocating one’s interests, and managing social processes.

In a similar manner, time acts as a shorthand for other categories that are of obvious importance to individual, group, and organizational interests. For example, time as expressed in biological age often constitutes a socially condensed and seemingly validated shorthand for assumptions about agility, experience, timeliness of knowledge, and physical capacities; time as visible in deadlines serves as a means to bundle resources to a greater or lesser extent; and having no time for a meeting is just a more polite way of saying that compared to other obligations one has, the current request is pretty far down on the priority list.

Overall, then, time seems to be on our side if what is tied to it favours, for the better or the worse, what we have in mind as our goals, what we are inclined to express as pressing and/or prioritized needs, and what we see as beneficial for the greater good. While, as the famous adage goes, we’re all dead in the long run, at least in the meanwhile we can ‘use’ time to the best of our capacities for the more decent bunch of our desires and the greater good, ‘find’ the time to relate to those around us who need it most and who are close to our hearts, and can at least try to never forget the preciousness of time.

Recommended additional materials

Birx, H. James. Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA et a.: Sage, 2009.

Callender, Craig, and Ralph Edney. Introducing Time. A Graphic Guide. London: Icon, 2012.

Jaques, Eliott. The Form of Time. New York, London: Crane Russak, Heinemann, 1982.

Mayrhofer, Wolfgang, and Hugh Gunz. “From Wallflower to Life and Soul of the Party: Acknowledging Time’s Role at Center Stage in the Study of Careers.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management, May 19, 2022, 1–43.

Mayrhofer, Wolfgang, and Hugh Gunz. “Time Is of the Essence: The Temporal Dimension of Careers.” In The Routledge Companion to Career Studies, edited by Hugh Gunz, Mila Lazarova, and Wolfgang Mayrhofer, 111–27. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2020.

Mayrhofer, Wolfgang. Time is on our side? Towards more time sensitive research in IHRM. IHRM Webinar Series,

Mayrhofer, Wolfgang: Temporal analytical scheme for empirical studies. Working Paper, 2023, WU Wien (available from the author at request).

Shipp, Abbie J., and Y. Fried, eds. How Time Impacts Groups, Organizations, and Methodological Choices. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, 2014.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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