Night Owl Economics

There are clear tensions between freeing public space at night and the way a 24-hour economy can open up unbounded exploitation.

The best nights out are usually those that emerge organically. We dive down the rabbit hole, bouncing through streets and into hidden bars, meeting new friends in bathrooms that we struggled to find. It is also the online rabbit hole that leads us to eerie corners of the internet, stuck in YouTube pipelines and TikTok hazes. 

This modern extension of our waking hours led Sydney to appoint a 24 Hour Economy Commissioner in early 2021. When Michael Rodrigues was appointed, he reported that “the most sobering statistic in the government’s research was that 48 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds agreed they prefer to socialise in online environments over the physical world”. 

But what is a 24-hour economy? And what does it actually mean for young people? 

American sociologist ​​ Harriet Presser coined the term in 2003, with her book Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families. Presser revealed how the erosion of standard work schedules (think 9-5) has devastating consequences for the health and well-being of workers and their families. In fact, an article from The Conversation reports that “overall, people who work nonstandard hours tend to have lower life satisfaction and higher levels of family conflict and marital instability”. With these findings, it is difficult to understand why 24-hour economies are being encouraged.

Fundamentally, we go out at night because the day is reserved for working. If not work, then study. Those who use public space during the day in the same ways that we reserve for the night are deemed social outcasts. The alleged  ‘free market’, as championed by neoliberalism, pursues the “artificial creation” of the night-time economy to capitalise off the quiet streets that linger after shops and offices close for the night in countries like Australia. 

This is why debates about night-time economics and the 24-hour economy are so interesting — there is no clear yes or no answer as to whether night time economies are beneficial. There are clear tensions between freeing public space at night to make it accessible and usable for all, particularly those in the arts, and the way a 24-hour economy represents neoliberal ideals of unbounded exploitation. 

Completing my first year of university in 2021, I don’t feel like I’ve had the full uni experience. As nights out were cancelled, my hopes of meeting new people and falling down the rabbit hole of a pub crawl were lost for another year. The sheer loneliness this created emphasised the need for nights out, nights full of expectations, preparation, gathering, connection, spontaneity, and absurdity. There is a certain buzz that only dimmed streetlights can create, and we all quickly worked out that drinking games on Zoom didn’t cut it. This did make one thing clear: the magic of a night-out does not summon itself from the twist of a bottle-cap. There is something else there.

Once appointed, Rodrigues was quick to critique Sydney’s night-time economy. “After-dark options have been highly skewed towards an Anglo-Saxon drinking culture,” he said, “which is out of step with the city’s multicultural reality.”

This Anglo-Saxon binge-drinking culture was a key factor in 2014’s lock out laws, which were routinely criticised because of their economic impacts, including an estimated $1.4 billion loss. The violence encouraged by a night-time economy based on drinking is catastrophic. In order to avoid this, according to Australian travel guide book publisher Lonely Planet, Sydney’s blueprint for nightlife-based experiences other than drinking may include extended opening hours for cultural institutions, identifying spaces that could be reclaimed for outdoor activities like dining and art installations, reducing restrictions on liquor licensing and live music, and increasing public transport options. To me, this sounds quite nice. 

However, these cultural and entertainment spaces do not appear out of nowhere. Oliver Smith, author of Contemporary Adulthood and the Night-time Economy, reminds us that “many of these new opportunities (for night-time work) are poorly paid, transitory and non-unionised, within an industry renowned for the enthusiastic adoption of zero-hour contracts, unsocial hours and the potential for risky or exploitative working conditions.” 

As we know, many of these jobs will be occupied by students attempting to pay skyrocketing rent without infringing on their studies. Smith also adds that night-time economics have a social welfare price: “it creates an environment in which violence and sexual assault are so common-place as to often go unreported, accepted by many as a routine hazard of a big night out.” 

Who does the night-time economy benefit then? Jobs are created, yes, but not for the women who can’t risk walking home after a late shift. Those who do occupy them are then part of an industry dependent on unbounded labour. 

And who for? Sydney is the sixth most expensive city in the world to spend a night out in at an average cost of $86.70. After the lock out laws and the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of a night-out continues to exclude a number of people. Furthermore, the discretion afforded to many clubs and bars continuously shapes night-time economics as they maintain the right to refuse entry. Racial discrimination by security is rife, with disgusting accounts of nightclubs refusing entry to Indigenous and Sudanese people and other cases of Australian clubs using racism as a justification to deny entry. Few are able to safely enjoy a night-out with threats of danger, and yet we continue to crave the chance to chase the rabbit down the rabbit hole. 

Young people have good reason to prefer the online realm to the sticky floors of the clubs and bars we wait hours to dance upon. Whether it be the exploitation inherent to the 24-hour economy, the drinking culture, the occupational risks of working within it, the cost, or safety concerns, the negative space of the night feels increasingly pitted against us. 

However, as lockouts and lockdowns proved, there is something endearing about a night-out that leaves us tapping our cards for overpriced vodka raspberries and working ridiculous hours in order to be able to do so. We are built into the economy, and have become dependent upon it for the years worth of good stories that one good night out can fuel. But we must demand more of these night-time economies. As we begin to renegotiate the spaces where our biggest nights take place as COVID restrictions lift, the night-out should feel like less of a compromise on our wealth and health. The night-out takes place in negative space, but need not be a negative experience. We should chase the rabbit as she leaps outside the digital realm, but she too needs to rest.