by Cara Gardner

Americans have been saying it for years, to themselves, to their spouses, to their friends: "There aren't enough hours in the day -- I need more time!" Carpe diem, the Latin proverb reminds us, seize the day. But whose day are you seizing as you accelerate through the yellow light, skip dinner with your family, grab a hamburger between appointments? Who does your time belong to? At what price are you selling it?

These are some of the questions proposed by Take Back Your Time, a new initiative aiming to get Americans to wise up about their most important commodity: time.

"Over-work and over-scheduling threaten our families, health, communities and environment," says the Take Back Your Time national coordinator, John de Graaf. The initiative emerged from the Simplicity Forum, a non-partisan leadership think tank designed to encourage healthy, environmentally conscious living.

"We were looking for public policy initiatives," says de Graaf. "Simplifying your life isn't purely personal -- it's part collective bargaining, part cultural." De Graaf hopes the Take Back Your Time movement will garner support for real changes in our culture's views of time and work.

Take Back Your Time advocates a 30-hour workweek and says Americans should have minimum-paid vacation every year. Sound radical? Well, it shouldn't be too unfamiliar. After all, the U.S. Senate passed the 30-hour workweek by an overwhelming majority back in 1933. Supporters believed it could lead to job-sharing, boosting our nation's unemployment epidemic -- certainly as relevant an issue today as it was back then. Eventually the Roosevelt administration abandoned the idea.

"Roosevelt decided to use Public Works projects, which was eventually the New Deal, instead of work-sharing," explains de Graaf. "Though there was strong business support for the 30-hour workweek, there was opposition too, about it being mandated by the government."

On April 6, 2003, exactly 70 years after the 30-hour workweek passed in the Senate, Take Back Your Time began a major campaign encouraging Americans to reclaim lost time.

Americans' standard 40-hour workweek is longer than almost any country in the world. De Graaf says Americans today work more than medieval peasants in the Middle Ages. That isn't exactly the payoff for our progress that we expected.

"Since 1970 we've added five weeks -- roughly 199 hours -- to the work year, according to national labor and industry reports. It flies in the face of what we were told was going to happen, which was we might be working only 20 hours a week by the turn of the century." De Graaf says somewhere along the way, we became workaholics.

"It was a choice - not a conscious choice - to take the 80 percent gains in productivity in the form of money and stuff instead of time. This is where American life has gotten out of balance."

The International Labor Organization says that Americans work, on average, nine weeks (350 hours) longer than our peers in Western Europe. Take Back Your Time wants to drive that point home to Americans, so they've declared October 24 the official Take Back Your Time Day. What's the significance of that date?

"October 24 is nine full weeks before the end of the year," de Graaf explains. "So, theoretically, the Europeans would have the rest of the year off, while Americans would continue to work."

De Graaf hopes Americans will join the Take Back Your Time Day movement by taking the day off on October 24 and talking with their families, employers and communities about how to find a balance between work and life, time and money.

Europe's Model -- "We are the only country in the industrial world with no guaranteed [paid] vacation," de Graaf points out. "Every European has at least four weeks off with pay. In fact, [Europe] averages six weeks of paid vacation a year. Americans average two. Even China and Brazil give three weeks off with pay."

At least 26 percent of Americans get no paid vacation at all, and about 50 percent of Washingtonians received no paid vacation at all last year. Washington State Senator Karen Keiser (33rd Legislative District), the communications director for the Washington State Labor Council, sponsored a state minimum-paid vacation bill this year, but it didn't receive a hearing.

A study by the Families and Work Institute found a significant number of American workers didn't even take the vacation time they were owed "because of the demands of their jobs."

"There are so many studies that show you are more productive when you get that time off," de Graaf says.

It seems the Europeans find more value in having time to do what they want, while Americans generally find more value in having money to buy what they want. Yet imagine what you could do with those nine extra weeks the Europeans have, not to mention the additional five to six weeks of paid vacation they get each year, not to mention the 10-15 paid holidays.

But Americans' time problems go deeper than having a long workweek. Even our time off is filled with over-scheduling. Weekends are filled with errands, projects and obligations to others. In general, Americans think "doing nothing" is lazy -- and laziness is something that we, as a nation, abhor.

In fact, America prides itself on its work ethic. It's what we're known for throughout the world. We're also known for our penchant for eating fast food and having citizens who break into their boss's office with guns. But it's hard to change the American idea that more is always better, that more stuff means a better life, and that more work means better productivity.

"Much of [this initiative] is personal," says de Graaf. "Some of it is cultural. Americans need to know it's OK to slow down a little bit."

Family Matters -- The number of American families eating dinner together on a given night is down to 28 percent, a sharp decline in the last 30 years. The research, completed by family therapist Bill Doherty from the University of Minnesota, also shows that dual-income couples with kids spend an average of 12 minutes a day talking to each other.

"Families don't have an idea of what it's like to sit down and be relaxed and be together," says Jannette Robert Murray, a psychotherapist and clinical hypno-therapist for Life Directions Counseling and Coaching in Spokane Valley. "It's tough to live in Spokane without two incomes, and when there are two [incomes] you have very little time."

Murray says this fast pace can be especially hard on children, who often have as busy a schedule as their parent(s).

"I keep thinking of this program I saw where a family was being guided by a therapist to cut back on excessive activities. Mom was being the chauffeur so many hours of the day. The little boy was sitting next to the mother [relaxing] and he said, 'Mom, is this peace?'"

Despite all the studies that show Americans' love of the material world, it's important to note that we aren't simply greedy. Not everyone out there works so hard only to buy great things. Many Americans take pride in the work they do. In this culture, our work and the energy we put into it has a great effect on how we are thought of. Americans live with a strong belief that hard work ensures a good future. Differentiating hard work from over-work seems to be the rub.

"What are we working for if we don't have time to relax and enjoy?" asks Murray. "We have a tendency to live with a future goal rather than living in the present, even if it's just getting caught up on the bills or out of debt. It contributes to the way we don't take care of ourselves."

Work to Live... or Die? -- The Take Back Your Time initiative could very well be called the Take Back Your Life initiative. The direct correlation between stress and just about everything chronic and fatal has been well documented. De Graaf says our health is compromised by what busy people put into their bodies, from poor foods and high levels of caffeine to medications.

A recent study shows that American women self-medicate due to time crunches. The study says that, "the most commonly stated reason for going on drugs was that women felt they had a 'lack of time to be ill' and therefore push themselves to go to work."

Because a shorter workweek would lead to work sharing, many companies say it would require them to pay out more in benefits, costing millions. But companies spend billions of dollars a year on their health plans because of the physical and emotional strains related to over-work. Take Back Your Time's Web site reports that job stress and burnout costs our economy more than $200 billion a year. Still, it's hard to say how much companies would save if employees had less stress, or if shortening the workweek would even do much good in a nation of schedule-addicts.

German environmentalist Wolfgang Sachs says that slowing down is vital not only to our health, but to the health of the world.

"In a fast-paced world, we put a lot of energy into arrivals and departures and less into the experience itself," Sachs writes. "Raising kids, making friends, creating art all run counter to the demand of speed. There is growing recognition that faster speeds are not just a natural fact of the universe. It's an issue for public attention. What has not been discussed before now is: What kind of speed do we want?"

Tapping the Brakes -- It's important that people become more conscious of the speed at which they live their lives. In a world so large and uncontrollable, the most effective revolutions are internal. The world will transform as people make conscious decisions to change their minds, their lives and the choices they make as workers and consumers.

"A great number of people have decided to downshift," de Graaf says. "They want things like time and family life more than debt, money and having things. They are trying to simplify their lives."

For more information about Take Back Your Time, visit Take Back Your Time: Fighting Over-Work and Time Poverty in America, edited by John de Graaf, will be available this August.

Publication date: 06/12/03

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