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Getting off the Clock

Feeling the pinch of time poverty? Join the club. Better yet, join the growing national movement striving to reclaim those lost hours.

It’s high time you read this article. After all, the clock’s been ticking and time’s running out on your overstimulated mind, your overstressed body and your overburdened environment. In fact, there’s no time to wait. The time is now. Or, as the kids rushing around your neighborhood to make their play dates might say: “It’s go time.”

Because time, as it turns out, really is everything.

Over the past 30 years, according to data collected by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., we’ve been losing control of our clocks – both internal and external. The typical American added 199 hours to his or her annual work schedule (that’s nearly five additional weeks per year) and, relative to that increase, saw a net loss in vacation time. In fact, our citizens now receive less paid time off than any others in the industrial world.

Married couples, between 25 and 54, who are raising their families on two incomes, now work an average of 388 hours per year more than they did in the late ’70s. And that average increase doesn’t account for particular demographic groups, such as the middle class, who have actually seen their work increase by 660 hours per year over the same period (an increase of just over 20 percent).

Sadly, most of us haven’t benefited from the extra effort. The harder and longer we labor, the more overscheduled we become, the more we consume, the more our lives cost, and the less time we have for our families, our communities, our environment or ourselves.

In a generational study commissioned by Hilton Hotels Corporation in 2001, researchers concluded that two-thirds of the U.S. workforce is suffering from symptoms of burnout – even though nearly half of those polled believe time is more important than money. Seven out of 10 of us say we want more fun in our lives, and just as many of us would happily trade a day’s wages for a day off.

Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist, believes that children are more prone to depression and dysfunction, in part, because they are over-booked with scheduled activities and underexposed to simple communal activities like a family meal or a quiet evening at home.

Time poverty (and our resultant demand for maximal speed and convenience) is at the root of many of our most vexing societal ills. It’s at least partially to blame for the explosion in fast food and for eroding exercise habits, which have spawned the obesity epidemic in this country. Our desire for to-go and disposable items contributes to the throwaway culture that’s packing landfills and devouring our natural resources at an alarming rate. Ultimately, even as our lives have become faster and “more convenient,” as we’ve learned to get more done in less time, many of us have begun lamenting the unmistakable decline in our quality of life. And an increasing number of us are questioning the tradeoff.

Where Did the Time Go?

According to John de Graaf, editor of a collection of essays titled Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (Berrett-Koehler, 2003), there are a number of explanations for our culture’s near-fatal loss of leisure time. But the most obvious cause is an economy that depends on a powerful cycle dubbed “work and spend.”

Stated simply, de Graaf and the other writers who contributed to Take Back Your Time are convinced our culture revolves around an obsession with consumerism that has spun completely out of control.

“People are bombarded with images and words that tell them buying equates to the good life,” he explains. “And it really starts early in life now, because marketers know the best way to create loyal consumers is to reach them when they are kids. Combine that mentality with the fact that many Americans have flat incomes, and the higher cost of essential goods like housing and healthcare, and you have more people working longer hours to buy stuff they don’t really need while also trying to pay off the massive debts they’ve accumulated trying to make ends meet.”

In 2002, at a small conference in Kalamazoo, Mich., academics, political activists and community advocates who had gathered to advance the concept of simple living (popularized in books such as Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life) decided to take on what they saw as an all-consuming epidemic of “affluenza.” De Graaf defines affluenza as “the painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” (For a feature article on affluenza, see the Jan./Feb. 2002 Experience Life, available online at lifetimefitness.com.)

In an effort to raise awareness around the issue, the group organized an annual “Take Back Your Time Day,” intended to serve as a marketing device for the movement and also a sort of nonpartisan political rally. The inaugural event, held on October 24, 2003, proved a great success and led to the organization of a Take Back Your Time Conference, held over three days at Loyola University in June 2004.

Such events are essential, says de Graaf, to furthering a much-needed dialogue. “We need to start talking to our friends and families about this issue,” he notes. “Up till now, we’ve been almost totally silent about it.”

Taking It Back

The alarming time-poverty statistics make it clear that we need more leisure to reconnect with our families, friends and selves. And you’d think that those same statistics would convince even Scrooge-like employers that giving workers more freedom to relax and recharge would lead to happier, healthier workplaces and greater productivity. To actually make these sorts of changes, however, requires dedicated individuals who are willing to reexamine their values, change habits, demand new policies and rethink the whole concept and value of leisure.

But not everyone has the clout or economic freedom to simply reclaim their free time, de Graaf points out. That’s why the Take Back Your Time movement is about more than personal choice. It’s also about institutional change, political evolution and social will.

Companies, says de Graaf, especially those that employ blue-collar workers and one-wage earners, must become more socially responsible. Lawmakers must be more willing to support legislation that ensures reasonable working conditions, limits on overtime, fair pay and periods of paid leave, whether for medical reasons, family needs or relaxation.

The impractical stuff of fantasy? Perhaps not. “At least 12 states are well on their way to having paid family leave,” de Graaf notes, pointing out that California already has such a law on the books. “Paid sick leave is likely our next hurdle. We have a productivity problem in this country that is caused by having too many sick people that then make other people sick. Europeans have already proven that giving sick people time to heal actually improves productivity.”

Legislative battles aside, though, de Graaf believes his movement’s prime directive is helping Americans understand that while money may fuel our lives, time is its engine. “We all have this idea that life revolves around the economy,” de Graaf says. “And that’s true. But what good is an economy if it’s not about health and sustainable communities and family? No one, if they really thought about it, would say that the purpose of an economy is to be No. 1 at producing the most stuff. But that’s the attitude. And the sooner it changes, the better off we’ll all be.”

David Schimke spends most of his time in Minneapolis, where he works as a senior editor for Utne magazine.

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