by Cara Gardner

According to a U.S. Senate report, by the year 2000 Americans should have had a 20-hour workweek and seven to 10 weeks of paid vacation a year. That was back in 1933, when Congress actually passed a 30-hour workweek (only to have it vetoed by Franklin Roosevelt). They got it just a little bit wrong: Americans today are busier than ever, working the most hours of any nation in the world.

More recently, technological improvements, from cell phones to personal digital assistants, have been touted as ways to simplify your life by improving your efficiency. The result? People are tied to their jobs more than ever; in fact, one of the biggest assets in American divorce cases is unused vacation money.

These facts and others like them prompted a wide range of religious leaders, lawyers, professors, psychologists, activists, authors, filmmakers, moms and dads, economists and politicians to gather in Chicago last month. It wasn't a business-as-usual meeting, either. They met for three days to discuss the most endangered resource in America: time.

Time poverty in America, conference leaders say, is causing personal health problems, the breakup of families and the disintegration of communities. And it's hindering the most basic of American rights: the pursuit of happiness. I went to the conference to learn about time poverty and to see what's becoming of the growing movement to combat it. I found leaders from all cross-sections of the professional grid had come to acknowledge that time poverty is one of the biggest threats to the American way of life.

"I remember studying sociology and being told one of the big things we'd face [in the future] is too much leisure time because of all the technological advances our society predicted," chuckles John De Graaf, founder of the Take Back Your Time movement, a grassroots effort to end time poverty and overwork in America. The Chicago conference was Take Back Your Time's first annual meeting of the minds.

"The U.S. Senate predicted that we'd have a 20-hour work week by the year 2000 and seven to 10 weeks of vacation," De Graaf continues. "In fact, we're working longer than we ever have before. We didn't get the leisure we expected. People are stretched too thin."

So what happened? De Graaf explains that the technological advances did indeed transform our work; in fact, America is twice as productive per worker hour than it was in the '70s. But instead of working less and enjoying the leisure time our technological advances offered us, we all decided to go shopping.

"We put all our apples into things and none of it into time," he says. "We've been driven by the consumer society and the message that the good life is stuff, and [that] happiness is obtained by having more stuff. We seem to believe the country that is the best [has] the biggest GDP. It's been beaten into us as part of the American Dream."

These ideas aren't new. The Overworked American (1992), by Juliet Schor, was the first book to call attention to Americans' increasing work hours; Schor coined the term "work-and-spend cycle," which connects overwork with over-consumption. Since then, she says, things have gotten even worse. From 1973 to 2000, the average American worker added 199 hours to his or her annual schedule; work hours have risen by about a half percent per year since the '80s. Material gain has increased, too. The average American home has increased its square footage by 50 percent, Americans eat out more often than any other country in the world and shopping is Americans' second-favorite pastime. (Number one is watching television.)

Despite the data regarding overwork in America, until De Graaf founded Take Back Your Time, there wasn't a forum for people to discuss time poverty in ways that would breed solutions. The movement designated Oct. 24 as Take Back Your Time Day; that's nine full weeks before the end of the calendar year -- exactly the amount of time per year the average American works more than the average European. Take Back Your Time calls for a cap on mandatory overtime, minimum paid vacation, paid family leave and for national Election Day to be a holiday (see "The Platform," page 22). Sound radical? Well, it shouldn't be. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was presented with the idea 70 years ago; under pressure from industry heads, instead he chose the New Deal model. The rest of the industrialized world, however, enjoys shorter work weeks, longer vacations and more options with regard to sabbaticals and job sharing. Even countries that are welcoming American jobs, like India, China and Brazil, have minimum paid vacation policies.

Record Pace

In the frenzied global economy, people from all income brackets and in all professions are feeling the strain of overwork and over-scheduling. Weekends are spent rushing through chores and errands that didn't get done during the week for lack of time. Saturdays are often more exhausting for families than Mondays. The tradition of Sabbath, or our day of rest, is all but extinct. Cecile Andrews, activist and Take Back Your Time board member, says one of her favorite subversive things to do is schedule a party on the weekend, then to cancel it. "You'll hear people breathe a sigh of relief. A free night!"

Despite the fact that overwork and over-scheduling is epidemic in the United States, many people don't feel like they can do anything about it. In fact, we live in a culture that embraces -- and even honors -- speed and productivity. People brag about how busy they are, or how many activities and organizations their children belong to. Going slow is for the lazy, the weak. Needing time off is somehow an indicator that you "can't keep up."

At the conference, anecdotes about time poverty abound. A journalist from Spain says the majority of people in his country don't have time to take a siesta anymore. Bill Doherty, a sociology professor from Minnesota who specializes in marriage and family, says homework for elementary school children has increased at an alarming rate. "We've seen colonization of the family by marketplace values," he says.

But what if our cultural ideas about speed and productivity aren't, well, productive? A cross-industry study showed that managers who worked more than 60 hours a week report a 230 percent increase in burnout. Often working fast leads to mistakes, which take more time to fix in the long run. According to the Department of Labor and Industries, Americans work more than any nation in the world; the United States surpassed Japan in hours of work per week back in 1996. And we're still pushing. Mary Illies, director of human resources for the Corpis Corporation in Seattle, believes time poverty affects the bottom line.

"What is productivity? It's maximizing the potential of employees and keeping great talent. Employees are members of the larger society -- they're not just part of the company's own silo workplace. They are parents and spouses -- and lots of companies have lost sight of that."

Workers have, too. Studies show the average American spends more than 50 hours a week at work and more than an hour everyday commuting to and from the workplace. In addition, people aren't very productive when they're sick, depressed, stressed out or exhausted, as most overworked people are.

"The majority of what I see in [patients] is related to stress, depression and anxiety," says Dr. Gary Knox, a Spokane physician. "There are a lot of overuse-type symptoms as well, such as carpal tunnel, tension headaches and neck or shoulder tensions from overuse on the computer."

Knox says most of the patients he sees are coming in with insurance through their employers. "Everyone knows the cost of healthcare is expensive and going up -- when people use their insurance, premiums go up. Anti-depressants are being used at a record rate." The irony is that many Americans keep their high-stress jobs because of the healthcare benefits.

"People are kind of caught," Knox continues. "At least they feel overworked and would like some time off but have the pressure of financial obligations."

Paying for It

Therein lies the rub. Financial obligations tend to grow along with income; the more you make, the more you spend. Such is American life. For those in the middle and upper classes, working less is a choice, albeit one that involves sacrificing the material signs of their productivity: cars, boats and toys, wardrobes, large homes and other status symbols that, ironically enough, some people often don't have time to enjoy because they're working to pay them off.

"For people who earn high salaries, if they want to work long hours and pay someone else to do their shopping for them, that's a choice they make," says De Graaf. "But poor people can't make that choice. It's very clear that while this issue [of time] affects all Americans, it disproportionately affects poor people.

"I think the people who have the least control of their time are poor people," De Graaf continues. "They work extra because their wages are so low or they need healthcare or they get asked to work off the clock -- they have less power in the workplace and their time is seen as expendable. But because they need a job so much to make ends meet, they'll do more."

When De Graaf hears complaints that the Take Back Your Time movement is just middle-class whining, he explains that in our economy, time -- which is allotted to each person equally -- is transformed into money -- which is not. And Andrews, the Seattle-based activist, points out in her essay "The Simple Solution" that rich, poor or in between, most Americans have far less time than money.

"Because Americans are so affluent compared to the rest of the world, we often think, 'Who am I to complain about my life? Look at all we have.' But we're now realizing that we're poor in many ways: in terms of community, friends, security, an inner life and of course, time."

Dr. Amy Paris, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Spokane, agrees. "We are inundated with stress-related disorders based on an imbalance in living and the way people are coping," she says. "Workaholism is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but it is under the broader category of addiction." Paris explains that our society actually rewards workaholism. "The satire is that [workaholism] is the only addiction that when you go to your grave everyone applauds. It's socially acceptable, but it's just as serious and detrimental to the healthy individual as any other addiction." Then she adds, "Real satisfaction comes from the spiritual work and having a peaceful heart. There are no pockets in our burial shrouds for earthly possessions. At the end of the day, it's our relationships with ourselves, with others and with God, however we define God, which counts."

Paris says she sees people moving in that direction; she says more and more, people are trying to find a renewed sense of spirit amid their hectic lives. In the Age of Stuff, when people are giving up more of their time in order to buy more things, at least, she says, people are working hard not to give up their minds.

"The modern world encroaches on our minds," says Michel Gelobter, executive director of Redefining Progress, an organization that works to promote sustainability. At the conference, he explained that the notions of time splicing, punching the clock, timing workers and monitoring their progress per second, as some companies do, is a methodology left over from slavery. "[The modern paradigm] specializes in not getting our bodies to places, but getting our minds in places. Mind-sharing, as they call it in the Silicon Valley. But our minds are still our own."

Clock Rebels

"If the world's richest economy can't give people adequate time for their lives, I have to ask, 'What's an economy for?'" De Graaf's question spoofs the idea of an economy as a huge game: Is it simply that whoever has the biggest GDP wins? Or is an economy a system of reciprocity, designed to make society rich -- holistically rich, that is, ensuring citizens sustainable, stable lives with which to pursue happiness?

Would leisure time really kill the economy then, as so many sensationalizing economists say that it would? De Graaf says no; in fact, he says, there are plenty of working models all over the world.

"Americans work longer than medieval peasants did. They work longer than any other industrialized nation in the world," he says. "And these other countries [with shorter work weeks] are not falling apart. In fact, American companies are investing heavily in EU countries. For instance, in 2002 American companies invested 15 times as much in Holland as they did in China. Holland is a tiny country with some of the best work-time policies in the world, and we find we can make a profit there."

In fact, Europeans do a lot of things American workers wouldn't dream of, like taking three to six weeks off at a time for vacation -- paid, of course. Studies show that many Americans don't take their vacations, even when they are paid, because they say they don't feel like they can leave the office, that no one else can do their job and that it's not worth it because of the work before and the catching up after.

"Over one-third of Washingtonians had no paid vacation last year at all," says De Graaf. Washington state senator Karen Kaiser (D-Seatac) introduced a minimum paid vacation bill last year, but it didn't receive a hearing.

Cecile Andrews, the Seattle activist, says depression is one of the biggest problems for employers now, and with the prospect of layoffs rearing its ugly head, it's getting worse. She says people feel expendable at their jobs -- that if they won't spend extra time doing all the work, someone else will.

"Isn't it strange," Andrews notes, that "the people in the most powerful country in the world have no control over their work lives?"

Take Back Your Time advocates suggest that it's smarter for people and businesses, for communities and families, to redefine what our time is for.

"Time as a whole is a very political subject," writes Jay Griffiths in her book, A Sideways Look at Time. "It is part of the language of power between men and nations and religions. Wherever there are clock rulers, there are clock rebels."

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Publication date: 07/01/04

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