Organizer John De Graaf hopes to spark a national dialogue on whether Americans work too much and have too little time for anything else.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 11/17/2003 6:59:16 PM ET 2003-11-17T23:59:16

John De Graaf thinks you work too much. He wants you to stop. If you’re not willing to do that he’d like you to take just one day to talk with other overworked souls about how working less could improve your life. “This is the conversation all the other countries are having and for some reason we haven’t had it,” he says.

De Graaf has a specific date in mind: Oct. 24, which he and others have proclaimed Take Back Your Time Day. It falls nine weeks before the end of the year; those nine weeks are precisely how much more time they estimate Americans spend at work each year than our European counterparts.

As Time Day’s national organizer, De Graaf would have us all take the day off to contemplate how we organize our lives, or at least take a few hours to attend one of dozens of local meetings across the country. As he describes it, we as a nation have become so work-obsessed that we are slowly destroying ourselves, our families, our health and our environment. “It doesn’t do anything for me personally that we’re the No. 1 economy,” he says. “That’s a great abstract, but what does that mean to the lives of people?”

Pushing for simplicity
De Graaf has become an expert of sorts on Americans’ habits. A veteran documentary maker, two of his PBS films — “Running Out of Time” and “Affluenza” — address the downside of American consumer culture and the rise of “time poverty,” and argue that Americans’ obsession with work and consumerism profoundly damages our quality of life.

Time Day was born out of De Graaf’s work and the broader “simplicity movement.” It was modeled on the first Earth Day in 1970, which was designed for Americans to come together and discuss a specific topic — the environment — on a national and community level. This time, organizers hope people will gather to discuss the elusive notion of work-life balance.

Not only is there growing evidence that most Americans want more free time, but opinions of work are slipping, as noted in a recent Conference Board survey that registered the lowest job satisfaction in years. De Graaf and other organizers contemplate a broad array of potential solutions — everything from European employment models to work sabbaticals — but they stress the need for dialogue as a prelude. De Graaf edited a companion book, “Take Back Your Time” (Berrett-Kohler, $14.95), which includes a series of catchy slogans: “Medieval peasants worked less than you do,” “Time is a family value.”

There are limits to the Earth Day comparison. Time Day’s budget (just $6,000 for the national campaign) and expectations are far more modest: perhaps 100 events around the country and a few ripples in Washington, D.C.

But the real goal is generate enough buzz to turn Time Day into a movement and keep it going for years. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Senate voted by unanimous consent to adopt a resolution backed by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would make October “National Work and Family Month,” though it didn’t specifically mention Time Day. The AFL-CIO recently held a rally to promote De Graaf’s efforts.

Of course, organized labor has its own dog in the work-life hunt and De Graaf is careful to underscore that he wants a nonpartisan discussion, even if some of his strongest support comes from left-leaning groups. He says work-life issues are also a rallying cry for conservatives who believe strongly in family and community life.

Questioning the economy
As De Graaf and other simplicity advocates paint it, Americans are verging on a huge social crisis.

The causes are straightforward: We are cursed with a drive to overwork fueled by a national culture obsessed with consumption and disposable income; corporations that demand longer hours and increase productivity while jobs are cut; and some very narrow-minded assumptions about the economy. The U.S. gross domestic product, De Graaf notes, counts all forms of economic activity but makes no assumptions about their social value. Though illness costs an individual, it can be interpreted as an economic gain to doctors and hospitals. “If you get cancer and have big medical bills, that counts as a net plus in the GDP,” he says. “We don’t ask ‘What’s an economy for?’ when we ask ‘What’s good for the economy?’”

One of the slogans used by Time Day organizers.
The impacts are harder to quantify. More work leads to more time commuting in the car, which leads to more pollution and less time to exercise or sleep or see your family. More time at the office means more stress, more health concerns and less time to vote or volunteer or get involved in the community.

The unifying factor, De Graaf suggests, is time.

But Time Day isn’t just about workers’ schedules. William Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota and another Time Day organizer, points out that kids often suffer from overloaded schedules not only because their parents are often gone but also because their own schedules are jammed with hours of homework and extracurricular activities that devour family time.

“We build schedules around individuals and the family gets what’s left over, gets the dregs,” he says. “The place to start is to ask what kind of family life you want and how much time do you want together as a family.”

'Pretty major things'
At the same time, De Graaf suggests these time expectations have developed so gradually and quality of life has eroded so slowly that Americans’ current workloads now seem normal. U.S. working hours have risen to among the highest of developed nations in the past 30 years.

“In a generation,” De Graaf says, “there’s some pretty major things that have occurred.”

Those generational changes resonate with aging Baby Boomers, and Time Day’s message is largely targeted to them. For many of those who were raised to keep up with the Joneses, wealth issues are becoming more complex: Retirement needs and what De Graaf calls the “amazing evaporating pension” have prompted many Boomers to reconsider priorities.

For that matter, the message rests against 1950s promises that productivity would soar and give Americans more leisure time (a claim echoed in the 1990s). By some economists’ assessments, those promises remain half fulfilled; productivity has risen, but without the predicted rush to leisure. De Graaf believes it’s gotten so bad that many of us now feel awkward when we have too much free time.

Modest plans
Most Time Day events will be modest. In Philadelphia, organizer and artist Betsy Teutsch will hold a synagogue meeting to focus on the need for spiritual time and the value of the Sabbath in building community. She became interested in the simplicity movement as she juggled her own art studio while raising her kids — and found herself continually pressed for time. “I have gradually edited a lot of things out of my life and then added things to my life that I wanted,” she says. “You just need to have some unscheduled time in your life to develop anything you want to develop.”

Doherty expects some 1,500 families at his four Time Day meetings around Minneapolis and St. Paul. Two, sponsored by local PTA groups, are meant to launch community initiatives that will examine how local families can better manage their time. Schools are increasingly concerned about how other activities chew up their students’ time and energy, Doherty says, noting some youth sports teams have heavier schedules than professional leagues.

Though Time Day is designed to focus attention on how Americans program their lives, organizers hope its message will linger, creating what Doherty views as “a community-wide effort that’s sustained over time.” De Graaf, for his part, just wants everyone to pause and consider whether we divide our lives in ways that are fulfilling both to us personally and to the interests of society at large.

“We haven’t even begun to give thought to these things,” he says.

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