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Take Back Your Time

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Take Back Your Time is the official handbook for TAKE BACK YOUR TIME DAY, a national event. Organizers have enlisted the support of colleges, universities, religious organizations, labor unions, businesses, activist groups, and non-profit organizations to create events that will take place across the country, calling attention to the ways overwork and lack of time affect us-at home, in our workplaces, and in our communities-and to inspire a movement to take back our time.

In Take Back Your Time, well-known experts in the fields of health, family therapy and policy, community and civic involvement, the environment, and other fields examine the problems of overwork, over-scheduling, time pressure and stress and propose personal, corporate and legislative solutions. This book shows how wide-ranging the impacts of time famine in our society are, and what ordinary citizens can do to turn things around and win a more balanced life for themselves and their children.

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CHAPTER 1: The (Even More) Overworked American

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I consider Juliet Schor to be one of America’s intellectual treasures—a scholar whose profound gifts have been devoted to making ours a happier and more balanced society. I first met her in 1991. Then an economist at Harvard, she was just finishing her powerful book, The Overworked American, the first to document and challenge the steady rise in hours worked by Americans since the late 1960s. Her book impressively examined the high price Americans are paying for their new epidemic of overwork, and it suggested a strong connection between long working hours and consumerism—what Schor called “the work-and-spend cycle.” Schor’s work has been a wake-up call for many Americans, including myself, but sadly, the problems she analyzed have only grown worse, and are in even greater need of attention today. —JdG

One of the most striking features of American society is how much we work. Now the world’s standout workaholic nation, America leads other industrial countries in terms of the proportion of the population holding jobs, the number of days spent on those jobs per year, and the hours worked per day. Taken together, these three variables yield a strikingly high measure of work hours per person and per labor force participant.

 

CHAPTER 2: An Issue for Everybody

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One sometimes hears that the issue of time pressure in America is primarily an upper middle-class concern, without meaning for the rest of society. But as Barbara Brandt points out, overwork and time pressure may have even greater impact on poor Americans, many of whom need to work at least two jobs to rise above the poverty level. For me, the most wrenching story in Michael Moore’s recent film, Bowling for Columbine, addressed just this issue. Moore showcased a recent tragedy in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where a six-year-old girl was shot to death by a classmate. While call-in show listeners demanded that the boy who killed her be tried as an adult, both the prosecutor and the sheriff in the case spoke to the underlying cause of the incident.

The boy’s mother, a single parent, had been moved from “welfare to work” in response to recent welfare reform. The only job available was a 90-minute bus commute from her home so she was away for at least eleven hours a day, could not afford Childcare, and had to leave her son unsupervised for long periods. In fact, her full-time job paid so little she fell behind on her rent payments and had to move in with her brother who kept a gun collection. The boy found one of the guns and took it to school. The rest was tragedy.

 

CHAPTER 3: The Incredible Shrinking Vacation

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Back in 1992, a San Francisco lawyer named Richard Such had a great idea. A trip to Germany had made him aware of how much more vacation time Europeans get compared to Americans. So, Such tried to get an initiative on the California ballot that would have required a six-week vacation for all workers in the state. I met Such while he was seeking signatures for the initiative at a transit stop in downtown San Francisco. Though many people were adding their names, business opposition and a lack of money prevented Such from getting enough signatures to bring the issue to a vote.

More than 10 years later, the situation has not improved. Instead, the average American vacation is even shorter. But another Californian, Joe Robinson, an energetic writer and adventurer from Santa Monica, is trying to change that. He is the leader of a national campaign advocating minimum paid vacation legislation. The campaign has attracted 50,000 petition signers and considerable media attention. In this chapter, Robinson points out how far behind the rest of the world we Americans are when it comes to time for life, and what we can do about it. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 4: Forced Overtime in the Land of the Free

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Not long ago, I gave a speech about Take Back Your Time Day at Southern Utah University. The large student audience was quiet, but very sympathetic, as shown by written comments that were sent to me. However, one professor of economics challenged my support of European laws ensuring vacations and reasonable working hours. It was, he said, a matter of “free choice.” American workers, by agreeing to contracts with their employers, freely choose the hours they work. Why did I want to force them to choose fewer hours? The “free choice” mantra is often raised when one talks about working hours, but as Lonnie Golden (who has carefully researched the issue for the Economic Policy Institute) makes clear, for more and more Americans, long overtime hours are hardly freely chosen. —JdG

On December 12, 1999, grim news came from the state of Maine. Following a winter storm, Brent Churchill, a telephone lineman working almost continuously (with only five hours of sleep in the previous two-and-a-half days), reached for a 7,200 volt cable and was electrocuted. In response, Maine became the first state to limit the number of involuntary overtime hours employers could require from an employee, capping them at 80 hours within any two-week period.

 

CHAPTER 5: Overscheduled Kids, Underconnected Families

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Americans talk a lot about family values these days, but often leave one out— perhaps the most important one for keeping families together and raising children to be happy and healthy adults. Time is a family value, and family time is perhaps the most obvious victim of overwork in America. Recent studies suggest that dual-income couples find only 12 minutes a day to talk to each other. Advertising, always sensitive to national trends, now frequently focuses on the loss of family time to overwork. Mothers can now leave cards for their children in the morning, apologizing for not tucking them in at night and for leaving for work before they wake up. Many parents, wishing they had more time for their families, give their children material gifts in an attempt to relieve guilt.

Overwork is clearly a culprit in this, but as the next two chapters of this book point out, not the only one. Sadly, we Americans are imposing our hurry-up, overworked lifestyles on our children, with rueful consequences. Taking back our time means changing cultural practices as much as it means reducing overwork. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 6: Recapturing Childhood

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Until recently, Betsy Taylor was the director of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Maryland. The Center ( www.newdream.org ) is working to redefine core American values—steering them away from a dream centered on money, stuff, and, endless material growth, toward a dream of sufficiency, family, community, and nature. Center organizers, concerned about the harmful impacts of overwork on American life, decided that they would have a four-day workweek (four eight-hour days), with Fridays off. As such, they’ve been able to attract an immensely able and dedicated workforce, and have created a model for other nonprofits, many of which are as guilty of overworking their employees as any big corporation.

The Center and Betsy Taylor have long been troubled by the corrosive effects of the old, materialistic, American dream on our children. And, as Betsy argues in this chapter (which includes excerpts from her recent book, What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy), they are equally concerned about the new time pressures our children face. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 7: What about Fluffy and Fido?

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I have to admit it. Despite years of interest in the issue of overwork and time pressure, I’d never given a thought to its impact on animals. But when talking to an old friend about Take Back Your Time Day, she told me that “this issue is even important to pets.” In her affluent California community, the fastest growing business was professional doggy-walking! “Sometimes you see a person being pulled down the street by five or six dogs,” she said. “People are so busy they have no time for their pets.” I called Camilla Fox, a friend and professional animal advocate for confirmation of animal neglect due to overwork. She agreed that it was a growing problem and offered to write something about it. —JdG

Often, pets are our best barometers—reflecting our mental and physical state of being. My dog Zaela, for example, is my daily gauge. If you want to know how I’m feeling today, just look at my ever-present four-legged companion. When Zaela is grinning and wagging her tail, you can be pretty sure I’m in a good mood. A forlorn, listless Zaela, however, may indicate it’s not the best day to approach me for a raise.

 

CHAPTER 8: Wasted Work, Wasted Time

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Jonathan Rowe is one of the most original thinkers in America today. His insights shine a light on our society that is refreshingly unique and penetrates far more deeply than most of our popular pundits. I first got a glimpse of his thinking when I read “If the Economy is Up, Why is America Down?” an article in the October, 1995 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In the article, Jon and coauthors, Ted Halstead and Charles Cobb, Jr., dissected that demigod of progress, the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. They showed conclusively that the GDP is anything but a measure of real economic and social health, pointing out that family break-ups increase the GDP, as do environmental disasters. Even cancer is a plus, with the massive medical bills it produces. Certainly, in the eyes of the GDP, leisure time is wasted time. In terms of our real needs, however, it is anything but. And, as Jonathan Rowe points out here, our overwork—often in pursuit of trivial ends or in response to someone else’s desire for profit—takes time away from volunteer activities that really could improve our quality of life. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 9: Time to Be a Citizen

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In 2002, President Bush, like his father before him, suggested that America needs more volunteers, but regretfully, he didn’t say where already overworked citizens might find the time to pitch in. True, we spend a lot of time in front of the TV, but TV viewing is more an indicator of weariness than free time. International comparisons show that annual hours spent in front of the tube correlate strongly with annual hours worked. The more a country’s people work, the more they watch TV. When you’re exhausted, it’s easier to curl up on the couch and grab the remote; it seems like considerably more effort to do something with friends or volunteer in the community. Active citizenship and real participation in our democratic political process requires time, as Paul Loeb, who has been studying citizen movements for many years, makes clear. —JdG

The ad in the airline magazine shows a young boy on a swing, the backdrop for an interactive pager held by a man’s hands. “Maybe you don’t have to send an e-mail right now,” says BellSouth’s ad for its interactive 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.

 

CHAPTER 10: Time and Crime

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It was in Chuck Reasons’ sociology class at the University of Wisconsin, Superior that I first read futurists’ predictions of a dramatically shortened workweek by the year 2000. That was back in 1968, just three years after the U.S. Senate estimated that we might be working only 14 hours a week by the turn of the twenty-first century. Chuck was a great teacher, one of the few whose class remains in my memory years later. I knew that he had gone on to an academic career as a criminologist and had studied law, as well. And though his published work focused at least as much on crime in the suites as on crime in the streets, I wondered whether his many years of research had turned up any links between overwork and crime, so I called him at Central Washington University, where he now teaches, to find out. This chapter is the result of our conversation. —JdG

Is there a link between overwork and crime? At first glance, such a connection isn’t obvious; it might, in fact, be perceived as negative. After all, people who are working a lot don’t have time for crime, do they? Idle hands do the Devil’s work, or so the old saying goes. But a look at the facts and the trends shows the answer is not so simple. Overwork in America may indeed contribute to our crime rate, already rather high by developed nation standards.

 

CHAPTER 11: An Hour a Day (Could Keep the Doctor Away)

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While doing research for the film, Running Out of Time, I visited the Meyer Friedman Clinic in San Francisco where the term, “Type A,” was coined. I interviewed Dr. Friedman, himself, and an associate, Dr. Bart Sparagon, who now directs the clinic. In their view, the number one cause of premature heart disease in the United States was what they called “time urgency”—a continual sense of time pressure that has become more and more common in our overworked, over-scheduled society. Though not all doctors agree with this theory, there is little doubt that time pressure has a serious impact on Americans’ health. In their recent book, Joined At the Heart, Al and Tipper Gore suggest that burnout and stress caused by overwork cost the U.S. economy as much as $344 billion a year. Since we launched Take Back Your Time Day, I’ve received many e-mails from doctors who all agree that overwork is a serious health problem. One of them was from Suzanne Schweikert, an obstetrician in San Diego, who is also doing research in public health. She sent along her reasons for concern. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 12: The (Bigger) Picture of Health

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The great conservationist, John Muir, once said, “Whenever you try to pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The view presented by this book is that shortening annual working hours and achieving greater time-balance in our lives will give Americans the chance to solve a host of problems. We may also see that overwork itself is a symptom of a deeper malaise—extreme inequality—that afflicts American society. The gap between rich and poor in the United States is now the greatest of any industrial nation.

Stephen Bezruchka, a physician and professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, has been studying the key factors impacting national health performance for many years. He has arrived at a surprising conclusion: more than anything else, the health of nations is dependent on their relative levels of equality. One important reason is that income inequality leads to overwork, weakening family and community bonds that help to keep us healthy. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 13: Haste Makes Waste

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In March of 2002, I addressed the Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin, a group of public and private waste management officials, at their annual state convention. The topic of my talk was “Haste Makes Waste,” and I invited my listeners to consider a thought that at first may seem like a non sequitur. “If we want to reduce landfills,” I suggested, “we should reduce working hours.” I’m not sure how most of my audience reacted; a few came by to tell me they agreed, but most seemed skeptical. Nonetheless, as the following three chapters make clear, overwork and time pressure not only mean less recycling and more use of throwaway items, they also pose a threat to our fragile environment in other ways. When I was looking for possible contributors to this volume, I thought immediately of Dave Wann, an environmental scientist and former EPA official, who cowrote the book Affluenza with Thomas Naylor and me. Dave is an astute observer of the ways by which our daily activities endanger the earth. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 14: The Speed Trap

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Robert Bernstein has been involved with both shorter work time and alternative transportation—issues he sees as closely connected—for many years. He’s the coordinator of a list serve for the national shorter work-time movement (www.swt.org) and he’s been involved as a transportation planner in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California. When I called to ask him to write this chapter, he was in the process of a long and painful recovery from a terrible accident—he’d been hit by a car while riding his bicycle to work. The accident had been nearly fatal and Robert is still healing from his many injuries. Despite his condition, Robert readily agreed to write the chapter. —JdG

“The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live another 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. “We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work … enough for all.”

 

CHAPTER 15: On Time, Happiness, and Ecological Footprints

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Common sense ought to make clear that our rush, rush lifestyle leads us to use throwaway products, recycle less, and, in general, pay less attention to the impacts of our consumer practices on the environment. Nonetheless, data confirming this is hard to come by. Considering the importance of these issues, remarkably few studies explore the connections between time pressure and overwork with environmental behaviors. Psychologists Tim Kasser and Kirk Warren Brown recently conducted one such study and their findings are outlined in this chapter. Although preliminary, their data tend to confirm what we already suspect. Both our environment and our far-too-frantic lives call out for more studies like this one and for a national commitment to act on the information they provide. It’s my hope that Take Back Your Time Day can be the catalyst for far more research on the social and ecological impacts of our American obsession with work and consumption. —JdG

As suggested elsewhere in this book, Americans today are working and consuming more than ever. Are they doing so to the detriment of their health, their happiness, society’s cohesion, and the sustainability of our ecology? We hope to contribute to the answer to that question by presenting new scientific evidence, which demonstrates that the amount of time people work does indeed108 have important associations with both their personal well-being and their impact on the Earth’s natural resources.

 

CHAPTER 16: When We Had the Time

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Along with Juliet Schor and a handful of others, Benjamin Hunnicutt has been one of the intellectual pillars of the shorter work-time movement. His writings bring to life powerful moments in American history, stories that ought to be part of every student’s education, but sadly have been forgotten. It was from Ben that I first learned the wonderful story of the Black-Connery Bill, recounted again in this chapter. We launched Take Back Your Time Day on April 6, 2003, the 70th anniversary of the passage of the Black-Connery Bill, which would have made 30 hours the official U.S. workweek (anything more would have been overtime) by the U.S. Senate. I met Ben Hunnicutt while producing the special, Running Out of Time, for PBS. I’ll never forget the trip my coproducer, Vivia Boe, and I made with Ben to Battle Creek, Michigan, where together we interviewed veterans of the Kellogg Company’s 30-hour workweek (also recounted in this chapter). It was amazing to learn that such an experiment had actually occurred in the United States, and to hear how much it meant to the people who had lived it. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 17: Can America Learn from Shabbat?

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Thirty years ago, I saw a film about the life of Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved of Christian saints. Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon was full of Hollywood sentimentality and probably, in many ways, far from reality. In every scene, Lady Claire looked as though she’d just stepped from the set of a Lady Clairol commercial. Nonetheless, the movie contained a powerful message. Francis spoke sharply to those who, in his day, had become possessed with possessing, obsessed with producing and consuming. Francis reminded them to remember what Christ said about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air “who do not toil and yet are more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory.” The film’s music, sung by the rock star, Donovan, was a bit sappy for my taste, yet one song remains in my mind:

“If you want your dreams to grow, take your time, go slowly,
Do few things but do them well, simple gifts are holy.”

Our great religious traditions, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow makes clear in this chapter, have always reminded us to take time for rest and contemplation, time to consider what is really important to us and to others with whom we share creation. Rabbi Waskow has been active for many years in the movement for shorter work time. I became aware of his work when I visited his Free Time/Free People Web site. It’s my hope that religious leaders of all faiths will consider Rabbi Waskow’s message carefully, and talk with their congregations on the weekend of Take Back Your Time Day, or before, about slowing down, observing the Sabbath, and thinking more deeply about what is most important in our lives. —JdG

 

CHAPTER 18: Enough– the Time Cost of Stuff

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One argument often used as an objection to shorter working hours is that the average American needs to work long hours “just to make ends meet.” But what is missed in this argument is that the ends themselves are all too often the result of time pressure and overwork. “Convenience” products do save time—on cooking, for example—but they usually cost more and thus increase the amount of time we have to work to pay for them. This sort of thing can reach absurd heights. Take, for example, a new product I saw recently—microwavable pre-scrambled eggs. Since all you do is heat them in the microwave, you save about five minutes in time over what you would have spent if you’d broken some real eggs and scrambled them yourself. But the pre-scrambled eggs cost about 20 times as much as plain old eggs do, about 12 minutes in working time for someone making an average salary. So where is the time savings here? Vicki Robin’s popular book, Your Money or Your Life, has helped millions of people around the world reassess their spending habits and decrease their personal spending by an average of 25 percent, thus, at the same time, reducing their need for long working hours. Vicki is an acknowledged international leader of the simplicity movement, founder of the Simplicity Forum and one who walks her talk, living simply and joyfully and inspiring others to do the same. —JdG

 

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