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Overworked Americans are urged to find a balance

SEATTLE -- Overworked, unsatisfied, and stressed out, physician Jeanne-Marie Maher decided she'd had enough. No more being haunted by her pager, her voice mail, and her cellphone. No more coming home, sitting down to dinner, and then getting right back on the computer to manage medical charts.

Maher, 50, quit her job as a doctor, retrained as a life coach, started spending more time with her family, and joined a Seattle-based movement urging Americans, who work longer hours than citizens of any other industrialized country, to reclaim their personal time.

"I needed to find balance," Maher said. "Now I get up without an alarm clock. I have breakfast with my husband. I will often take time to work out, or my husband and I will go for a bike ride."

The movement, which has proclaimed today national Take Back Your Time Day, aims to draw attention to the social and personal costs of Americans' increasingly long work hours.

Teach-ins, lectures, and readings will be held in cities around the country, including a lunchtime event today at a downtown Seattle mall and a noontime speak-out at Faneuil Hall in Boston. The timing of the day, nine weeks before the end of the year, carries a message: Americans work an average of nine more weeks per year than people in Western Europe, said, organizers citing statistics from the International Labor Organization. To even things up, we all would have to stop working from today until New Year's.

"There's a very high cost to our obsession with productivity and growth," said John de Graaf, a Seattle documentary filmmaker who came up with the idea for a day that would at first aim to raise consciousness and eventually lead to political organizing and legislative change.

Although the United States is the most productive country according to gross domestic product per capita, de Graaf said, "GDP doesn't measure many things that are very important to human happiness." Citing studies and statistics, de Graaf and other organizers in the movement said the "time poverty" of Americans contributes to the decline of family, community, and civic life, and also harms the country's health. Among the trends organizers noted: Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, infertility, and mental disorders are on the rise. Studies indicate two-income couples surveyed reported having only 12 minutes a day to talk to each other.

The root of the problem, according to organizers, is that instead of investing decades of gains in efficiency and productivity into more personal time, America has invested the gains in increased production while also increasing employees' work hours. The result, organizers said, is a vicious cycle: Longer work hours and increased productivity create more goods and services to consume than ever before. The time poverty that results from long work hours creates a greater need to buy goods that enable workers' hectic schedules. The need to buy more goods then feeds back into the need to work more hours, which was why workers needed more goods in the first place.

"The problem has gotten worse in a historical sense," said Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure." Schor is scheduled to speak at today's event at Faneuil Hall.

At the end of World War II, "the US had the shortest working hours among other industrialized countries," she said. "We now have the longest. We have surpassed Japan, which when I wrote my book [in 1992] was seen as the world's workaholic country. The average American worker is putting in 200 more hours per year than he or she was in 1973."

According to a recent study by the group Center for a New American Dream, about half of the Americans surveyed said they would be willing to trade a day off work each week for a day's less pay each week. Respondents also said they would be willing to trade a pay cut for more free time or less stress and pressure. "This is basically the wealthiest big country in the world, and yet its workforce is being pushed harder and harder in the name of some kind of economic discipline or scarcity rationale -- that somehow we don't have the choice but to work these long hours," Schor said.

The original creators of the movement, whom de Graaf described as mainly white, middle-class intellectuals, said there is another choice: Invest some of America's productivity dividend in reduced work hours and focus on improving workers' nonmaterial standard of living.

Organizers said Take Back Your Time Day has broad support, from unions, churches, conservatives, and liberals. "This issue cuts across a lot of traditional divides," Schor said. "There are not too many people who are going to say: `Oh no, we don't work enough.' "

For now the focus is on raising consciousness rather than proposing solutions. Earth Day started this way, organizers said, and within a few years that day helped to produce some of the most significant environmental legislation in the country.

Although the movement does not yet endorse specific solutions, individuals involved in the movement do. Among their ideas: a mandatory four-week paid vacation, on par with European countries; a limit to mandatory overtime; and a national health care system that would allow workers to consider changing jobs without the threat of losing health coverage.

The movement's handbook, edited by de Graaf, contains ideas for how individuals can take back their time, including canceling appointments and buying and doing less. Stephen Bezruchka, senior lecturer at the University of Washington's School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said these ideas are "clever, but they're not going to make much difference. Who the book doesn't reach is the poor. . . . The poor pay a much bigger price than you and I." De Graaf said, "I certainly agree that it's much more difficult for people who are in those situations to be activists in this movement." But he added, "Those are the people we're working for, and they're very supportive of this."

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