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Time to be a Citizen

How can you do your part for your country when work is swallowing you whole?

The ad in the airline magazine shows a young boy on a swing, the backdrop for an interactive pager being held by a man’s hands. “Maybe you don’t have to send an e-mail right now,” says BellSouth’s ad for its paging service. “But isn’t it cool that you can?” The ad, with its headline of “work@lifespeed,” celebrates a world where our work can engulf our every waking moment.

The endless workweek, however, threatens to overwhelm more than family life. It also turns us away from addressing any of the major questions of our time, from the quality of the schools where our children and others will learn, to preserving our environment, building a just and equitable economy, and responding to the amorphous and shadowy threats of terrorism, which we’re told will last our entire lives.

Along with the accelerated pace of global change, which I’ll explore later, endless work makes it harder to be an active citizen.

Stolen Citizenry

People tell me this when I travel the country, speaking on citizen involvement: “I’d like to be more involved in my community and take a stand on important issues,” they say. “But I just don’t have the time.”

It’s true for students beleaguered by outside jobs and debt, and for ordinary citizens stretched between the ever-escalating demands of their workplaces, commutes driven by steadily increasing sprawl, and trying to keep some time for their families.

It’s true in every corner of the country, and for people working all kinds of jobs: low-wage workers may be holding two jobs to make ends meet, while those more affluent see their single jobs spill over to fill all their waking hours.

When those who didn’t vote in the razor-thin 2000 election were surveyed, a fifth said it was because they were too busy. Although their response may be an excuse, it speaks to real barriers, which allow little time for citizen participation.

Of course, some stretched-thin citizens do find ways to take important public stands. The barriers to community involvement are often as psychological as they are material and practical. But the more time we spend at our jobs, the less we have – not only for family and friends, but also for addressing the critical issues of our era. For more of us to act on any of them, we may have to take on one more issue – the length of the workweek itself.

We now inhabit an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which we have to scramble faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Our work hours have been steadily climbing in the past thirty years: We now work the equivalent of nearly nine weeks more a year than our European counterparts. As some Congressional leaders push to end the deterrent of overtime pay in numerous sectors of the workforce, this burden is likely to expand. In a disturbing trend, employees in 28 states are now being forced to sue Wal-Mart, alleging that managers forced employees to punch out after an eight-hour workday, and then continue working for no pay.

Whatever our jobs, most of us now work longer and harder than we used to, do more in less time, and worry more about being downsized.

This is true whether we’re on a factory assembly line, writing code for a software company constantly behind on the latest release, or teaching the kids of the poor in an under-funded school. If we’re going to have a decent future, and not become “losers” in an increasingly divided economy, we’re told that we need to become the salesmen of our own lives – wheeling-and-dealing self-promoters who make career advancement the center of our existence.

And that doesn’t even take into account the increased load of other activities related to economic survival. Not only do we spend more hours on the job, we receive fewer benefits. We spend more hours driving to and from our jobs even as urban sprawl, escalating housing prices, and lack of decent public transit options raise the stress of our commutes.

Once we could rely on employer-funded pensions and Social Security, confident that if we worked long enough, our old age would be provided for. Now, for most of us, saving for retirement has become its own uncertain journey through treacherous shoals. We save what money we can, then try to parlay it into the maximum possible nest egg by spending hours studying investment-related articles, listening to financial talk shows, pouring over mailings from a hundred different mutual funds, and hoping we’ll make the right choices for a future that seems increasingly precarious.

Making a Dent

We may have no choice but to negotiate our individual passages through the time pressures we face. But making any significant dent in them will require changing the rules of the game, which means acting together. We’ll need common action to reverse the way that immensely consequential national and global decisions are being made in a manner that leaves no time for democracy.

Powerful corporate interests have made it clear they want to be able to conduct whatever activity they choose in an unrestricted global marketplace and with unlimited speed. Most promote a profoundly short-term concept of time: the next quarterly earnings report, the next cycle of the stock market – and for the politicians who back them, the next election.

This approach leaves little time or space for citizens to ask basic questions: Is a polluting plant good for the community? What’s the impact of closing a factory and moving it to a low-wage state or nearly-no-wage country? What kind of tax system will meet the needs of our society with fairness to all? How do we build an economy that treats people decently and respects our ties to the earth?

No company exemplified our hyper-paced world more than Enron. Enron and its vocal political allies (including George W. Bush) successfully pushed the idea that energy would be delivered most efficiently without regulatory checks. Those who argued otherwise, they claimed, were obsolete dinosaurs. In arguments repeated often by the apostles of unchecked corporate dominance, they insisted: The future is here. Get used to it.

As powerful economic and political interests grease the wheels for corporations to act without public oversight, regulation, or check, it becomes harder for ordinary citizens to respond, much less to undertake the necessarily patient task of rebuilding grassroots democracy. We find ourselves constantly reacting, running to keep up, and trying to slow the juggernaut of change.

Yet we’re also seeing the beginnings of a citizen activism that combines new approaches, like online organizing, with traditional grassroots outreach in a way that helps us keep up with the issues we face, even while living busy lives. Cyber-activism has allowed us to respond to a variety of new issues as they emerge.

In our hyper-paced political environment, we need these new approaches. But we also need more traditional forms of political outreach and connection, from vigils and protests to discussions of major public issues in churches, temples, PTAs, Rotary Clubs, and educational institutions, and with coworkers, neighbors and friends. While electronic discussions can foster surprisingly productive dialogue, they work best as an adjunct to face-to-face conversation and community rather than a replacement for it.

People still need to gather together, eat, joke, flirt, tell their stories, attach names to faces, and remind themselves why they joined their causes to begin with. “It’s almost reassuring that we still have to do all the traditional things if we want people to respond,” says a software editor who chairs her local Amnesty International chapter, “not just rely on the new technologies.”

Pacing Ourselves

America’s dominant culture makes speed an ultimate virtue, as if simply by moving faster we can overcome all obstacles, including our own mortality. Yet as Milan Kundera writes, “there is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

Challenging the increased pace of work and of change may require slowing down our own lives. Even in our activism we might remind ourselves that we’re in it for the long haul, however difficult the times. We need time to play with our children, read a book, go to a movie, dance to good music, or soak in the bathtub and do nothing. If our causes call for more, and they always will, we can find other people to participate, or take on fewer projects.

One way or another we need to stop before we’re so spent and bitter that we feel no choice but to withdraw permanently from the fray. “You can’t solve all of the world’s problems,” longtime labor and environmental activist Hazel Wolf reminded me on the eve of her 100th birthday. “You have to guard against taking on more than you can do and burning out with frustration. But you can take on one project at a time, and then another. You can do that your entire life.”

It’s tempting to respond to the speed we all face with a short-term politics of our own, reacting on issue after issue, as we try to prevent further incursions on human dignity by a culture that would place every value on a global auction block. But we can keep our eyes on the prize by drawing strength from what we fight to preserve, and thinking about the world we’d like to see.

We can tell the stories at the core of complex issues so lives and communities can’t simply be dismissed as expendable barriers to progress. We can raise enough root questions so that we do more than challenge particular abuses of power, and instead offer broader alternatives. And we can remember the value of standing up for our beliefs.

As fisherman and environmental activist Pete Knutson says, “It takes energy to act. But it’s more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you’re powerless, and swallow whatever’s handed to you. When you get involved in something meaningful, you make your life count.”

For most of us, our community involvement will inevitably be squeezed into whatever hours we have remaining after we earn what we need to get by. For nearly half a century, these leisure hours have been diminishing, as work takes over more and more of our lives. If we can begin reversing this, we’ll have more time to heal the real wounds of our communities, of our nation, and of the world.

In the words of an old union song, we fight for bread and roses – not only for survival, but for the beauty and richness that makes life worthwhile.

We fight as well for the right to be citizens, for the chance to create a democracy where all can participate.

Adapted from the essay “Time to Be a Citizen,” by Paul Loeb, which appears in the book Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (Berrett-Koehler, 2003), edited by John de Graaf.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. You can find out more about him, his book and his other projects at www.soulofacitizen.org.

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