Work life as an arena for neoliberal subjectification: The case of personal time management in Sweden during the 1980s

Lilla Sparbanksfoajén Session 4: The Neoliberal Shift organized by Jonas Ljungberg and Erik Bengtsson


Charlotte Nilsson


The paper is based on a book chapter about the establishment of personal time management as industry and ideology in Sweden during the 1980s (‘Marknadens tid’, eds. Andersson et al., forthcoming in 2023). The Danish company Time Manager International offered courses, handbooks, and planning tools from 1979, while British Filofax launched its calendars in Sweden in 1985. The study shows that in merely a decade personal time management became a normalized idea and practice in Swedish organizational life and society, applicable even to schoolchildren.

A research tradition with historical materialist roots has highlighted that industrialization not only consolidated time as a resource but also made it into a commodity (Nowotny, 1994; Thompson, 1967). From the time studies of early 20th century scientific management to the Swedish state’s guidelines for efficient housework in the mid-1900s, individual productivity was key. However, such projects were essentially aimed at improving the economy and progress of the organization and/or society. Only with personal time management in the late 20th century did the individual become responsible for optimizing their time to achieve personal success and well-being (cf. Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007).

In the emergence of a post-industrial, neoliberal knowledge economy, the normative form of organization became flexible networks with temporary work engagements instead of traditional hierarchies with fixed career paths. Previous research has shown that a flood of self-help books and inspirational seminars stepped in to guide people to not only work harder, but also continuously invest in their own development, not least in terms of time usage (Gregg, 2018; McGee, 2005).

Theoretically, the paper connects to the formation of a neoliberal/entrepreneurial subject during the late 20th century (Bröckling, 2016; Harvey, 2005; Rose, 1999), but it further clarifies the role of new commercial actors in the co-creation of such an ideal individual. The case study provides a Swedish perspective on the global personal time management industry and shows how individual privacy and personality were included in the presented ideas and tools: Planning one’s time and researching one’s priorities were methods not only to achieve higher productivity and, thus, more professional success, but also to become a ‘better’, more fit individual in general.


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