Hungry For Time: A Case for Simplifying

If you take the short view of our current political, cultural and employment environment, it's not a pretty picture: more inevitable employee downsizing, more work stress for some, no work for others, less funding for helpful programs, more scapegoating of victims, less money for arts, education, critical opinion, innovative thinking, more jail time for the errant, less leisure time for families and communities, less economic democracy, more political mayhem and evasion, less empathy, more cynicism, less grace in our expensive American lives. But lest we despair, there is a movement stirring to address these issues and take us more gracefully into the 21st Century.This movement is lead by people like Benjamin Hunnicutt, a researcher at the University of Iowa Leisure Studies Department. In addressing the issue of work and leisure, Hunnicutt cites Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who in the 1920s saw the growing role of the machine in the workforce as a great liberator of human values. "I see a new future where freedom from work will become our major preoccupation," says Hunnicutt. He also references W.K. Kellogg, the visionary cornflake king and health advocate, who early in the century instituted the six-hour workday at his Battle Creek, Mich., plants (not abandoned until the 1980s) and who felt the fruit of industrialism should be "leisure and time for family and culture." "These liberation capitalists saw the machine freeing people from work for life outside of work, expanding time for free activities, things to do with the family, expanding the humane world, giving substance to the promise of the Declaration of Independence for the pursuit of Happiness," Hunnicutt explains. "There was a great deal of optimism and hope pinned on a progressive development of industrialization that included not only higher wages but also shorter hours -- higher wages for the good material things in life, and shorter work hours and more leisure for the 'more humane and moral benefits of a democratic society' to use Jefferson's phrase."What happened to this vision -- one that was rooted back as far as the colonial Puritans and Quakers and grew out of the spirit of the founding fathers as well as that of Emerson and Thoreau? It was undermined by business interests consciously creating a culture of consumption, insists Hunnicutt.The invention and explosive popularity of radio expanded the power of mass-market advertising. Self reliant rural Americans and new working-class immigrants, strong with frugality and homecraft skills, were disparaged for wearing homemade clothes or using "old-fashioned" ways and goods. "Real Americans" used nothing but new, store-bought goods and services. Jefferson's resourceful democratic citizenry gave way to the 20th-century consumer society.The Wrigley building in Chicago rose on the fortunes of chewing gum, and skyscrapers mounted high throughout all of metropolitan America on the sales and consumption of advertised goods. A society opting for more leisure with less income was seen as a threat to the interests of business. In 1932 a bill was introduced in the US Congress to reduce the work week to 30 hours to provide work sharing during the Great Depression. Roosevelt supported it but the business community was against it, preferring to see the government get into work creation to expand the economy.Since then politicians have been barking the mantra of "Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!" "Ask someone who they are and their identity is tied to their work," quips Hunnicutt. "Leisure became trivialized, and the serious responsibilities of leisure culture, family, church and community were neglected as work became a moral solvent for the results of that neglect."THE CULTURE OF MATERIALISMToday this culture of work and spend has reached a crisis point according to Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure."The rise in hours of work and the increasing pace of everyday life is general and pervasive. The problem of overwork affects all demographic groups -- Baby Boomers, blue collar workers, yuppies. It is depressingly common to all. Since 1969 the average worker has added one month of work time to his or her annual schedule. The contemporary two-parent family with two children (now a full-time dual earner family) has added 1,000 hours per year of work outside the home."In a world in which most Americans say they're working more, in which early morning and late evening commuter trains are increasingly full, in which corporations are drastically cutting employment and raising productivity, and in which overtime hours are at a record high, it's hard to swallow the claim that it's all in our heads," says Schor."Longer hours are a predictable outcome of capitalist society -- on account of the structural bias towards work and against leisure. In our time that bias is caused by two factors: fringe benefits, which operate like a lump sum tax on each employee, leading employers to want to hire fewer people and work them longer hours; and salaried work, in which additional hours are free to the employer."A culture of materialism, high consumption and easy spending is encouraged by the corporate community, according to Schor. Workers with mortgages, children and even debts are preferred by employers because they're more dependent on their jobs and more controllable."Even if we had family friendly workplaces, it wouldn't be enough," Schor said. "We must also address the question of spending. Keeping up with the Joneses has changed since the 1950s -- the Joneses are now in the next office cubicle, since no one has time to actually know their residential neighbors anymore."Schor refers to this as the "double whammy" -- being caught between the stress of the work environment and the pressures of the consumer environment. But the earth's finite resources and fragile environment should also concern us."If we are in a world that is beyond its environmental carrying capacity -- and I believe our planet is already at that point, perhaps doing damage that is already irreparable -- and if we are living in a country where five percent of the world's population is using 30 percent of the world's resources, shouldn't the question be how we can construct an economy and culture where people are better off with less? Less work, less stress, less crime, less violence, less inequity, less shopping and less stuff. We must acknowledge this head on."Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, DC, and author of The End of Work, offers a searing vision of the employment prospects of the oncoming Information Age. "By the year 2020 we can expect the elimination of blue collar workers on the factory floor," Rifkin says. "Ninety percent of job loss in the past decade has been to technological replacement, not moving work overseas."White collar service sector and middle management jobs are also deconstructing. We can expect workerless factories and virtual companies -- they're already here. We are already seeing a new tripartite structure in successful competitive industry: a small entrepreneurial elite, beneath them a very highly skilled professional team and below that a 'just in time' workforce."Currently, 75 percent of all jobs in the industrial world are what we call simple repetitive task jobs, already vulnerable to the existing software that's on-line. Only five percent of the companies in the world have yet begun to re-engineer their structures. This has drastic implications for East Asia, and we can expect radically more downsizing in the next 10 years."According to Rifkin, the current industrial paradigm is different than any we've had before. The mass employment of the Agricultural Age was replaced by the mass employment needs of the Industrial Age."The new knowledge sector will not replace the jobs lost in the blue and white collar industrial sector," he said. "The Industrial Age was based on mass human labor, but the Information Age is based on small, elite, boutique work forces, highly skilled, working alongside very sophisticated intelligent machines. And success in the new age will be measured by fewer, not more, knowledge sector jobs."As Rifkin sees it, only the very highest expertise will be needed in this market-driven meritocracy, with little room for "garden variety skills." Software will widely distribute the talents of these elite.A deeply polarizing and destabilized society is already taking shape. "We are on the cusp of a technological revolution that could free millions and millions of people from the toil of the marketplace. The question is will we be freeing them for unemployment or for leisure. Will we shorten the workforce or the work week?" Rifkin asked."Two central issues that haven't been raised yet in this country, and are just being raised in Europe are one: What do you do with the millions of people who are going to be needed less or not at all in an increasingly automated, global economy -- that's a tough question to ask publicly; and two: How do we begin a debate in every country of how best to share the vast productivity gains of this technology revolution so that it benefits more than just an elite corporate few, but also the widest segment of the population of each country. This is the geopolitics of the 21st Century."Others are less apprehensive of the downsizing mechanisms of the Information Age and more concerned with a radical personal response to the stresses of "work and spend." Vicki Robin, president of the New Roadmap Foundation and co-author of Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence a book that has sold more than 500,000 copies, said her intention is to help people determine for themselves what is enough.Robin said she lives on $7,000 per year and donates the profits from her work to charity. "Everyone's 'enough' will be different. 'Enough' is a place of freedom."First you have to ask the question, what is money? Money equals your life energy. You pay for money with your time. Everything you own represents life energy invested and is an expression of what you think is important. By honoring our own life energy, by not wasting it, we honor ourselves. And we have more freedom and options about how to spend our time," she said.This kind of self-liberation is within everyone's grasp right now, with no need to look for help from the government or from employers. She describes a growing cadre of financially independent people -- "free radicals" who have liberated themselves from the corporate workplace to serve society and pursue higher priorities."One anomaly of our society," Robin says, "is that we behave as though we were in a condition of scarcity when we're in a condition of affluence. As a culture we really suffer more from diseases of 'too muchness' than from diseases of scarcity: too much fat on our bodies, too much clutter, too much ambition, too much seduction in the marketplace, too many cable channels to pick from, too many choices of breakfast cereal. Everything is just too much!"Robin's book describes a nine-step formula for profoundly assessing a person's earning and spending capacities, identifying what a person spends money on and relating it to the amount of lifetime traded for it. A person then learns how to invest that life energy into his or her true priorities.HISTORY'S STANDARD OF SIMPLICITYAnother proponent of the voluntary simplicity perspective is Jerome Segal, research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, and author of the forthcoming Graceful Simplicity and Other Alternatives to the Consumer Society.In line with the historical view of Dr. Hunnicutt, Segal emphasizes that simple living and material modesty and grace have been with America since its earliest colonial history. "It began with the first Puritan settlers who made it illegal to dress ostentatiously or serve too many courses at a meal," Segal said."Quaker simplicity even engaged the structural issues of society. In their view the wrong-headed pursuit of a life of ease and luxury was really what lay behind the institution of slavery. We could extend that to today's global wage slavery."At the time of the American Revolution there was much concern for earlier experiments with democracy, particularly in ancient Greece and early Rome when the republic was still healthy. Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were very concerned whether civic virtue could survive economic success. John Adams, particularly, worried that with a country so bountiful that economic growth would be inevitable the corruption of commercialism might be unavoidable," Segal said. "Britain was seen as the great Satan bringing commerce and goods that would draw Americans away from the simpler life." What would Adams make of modern American radio and television?Segal notes how the Transcendentalists valued leisure over materialism and the Aesthetic Simplicity movement in architecture and furniture design of the late 19th Century. Also at that time was the Farm Life movement, concerned with how to use what was then modern technology to keep small farmers and farm workers on the farm. During Roosevelt's New Deal there was encouragement for Subsistence Homesteading, programs to create more small farms."Then there was Jimmy Carter, who castigated the country like a puritan father," notes Segal, "saying that we worshipped self-indulgence and consumption. This was part of his infamous 'malaise' speech, for which he was severely criticized by the corporate media, contributing to his loss of re-election to Ronald Reagan, who brought us 'a new morning in America' and tripled the national debt. Hillary Clinton spoke of a 'politics of meaning' and was also criticized. Turning away from materialism is usually highly political."Segal's concept of "graceful simplicity" holds that there should be an "attitude of thankfulness toward what we have. Even those of us who are [not well] off have an enormous amount to be thankful for."A NEW POLITICAL ACTIVISMBut Segal does not advocate political quietism or passivity to social change. The politics of simplicity requires a radical paradigm shift "that re-centers us on a baseline question of: What's the economic realm for? How do we understand the good life? How does the economy impact on it and how can the political realm deliver more possibility of the good life to us?" Segal said there would be much common ground for both the left and the right in the attainment of this new vision.There was a general feeling at the conference that a new political activism was being born around these issues. Betty Friedan, founding president of the National Organization for Women, said the social problems associated with corporate downsizing were, in her view, the central issue of our time, as the Vietnam War was in the 1960s."There has to be a new political movement, a new model, not communism or laissez faire capitalism, that puts the lives of all people and the community as a priority," she said. "We need something other than the Dow Jones index; we need a quality of life index."According to Rifkin, even business leaders are beginning to sense threatening contradictions in the present system. Much of the investment capital for Wall Street comes from employee pension funds. As the number of employees shrinks, so does this pool of available capital. A shrinking and scared middle class also affects retail sales. "The past Christmas season was an eye-opener for retailers in America and all over Europe as well."Rifkin said work sharing and shorter hours have to be the solution. He predicted the 30-hour workweek would be standard by 2005. "It's on the front of the political agenda in Europe right now," he said.Rifkin said we must move beyond the bipartite economic thinking of Big Government vs. Big Business. While mass employment is shrinking in both government and market sectors expansion is occurring in a new, under-recognized civil sector. He described the civil sector as an area of "people to people" employment, performing tasks such as teaching, nursing and health care, cultural and environmental attention that machines will never be able to perform.Non-profit civil organizations and local service institutions already employ 10 percent of the paid workforce with nearly an equal number of unpaid volunteers. "The business community must recognize that if it will continue to prosper in a civilized world, it must pay its fair share to support that civilization. Small taxes on technology that displaces employees would be one technique to attain more fairness," Rifkin said.Everyone agreed, however, that pressure on the business establishment (i.e. the political establishment) must come from a grass roots activism. "Where is the debate in this country around industrial democracy, facing up to the juggernaut of global capitalism?" asked Jerry Tucker, UAW executive board member."The concession of choice that management demands today revolves itself more about time than about income," Tucker said. If a shorter work schedule is to become a reality, "all progressives need to be supportive of the labor movement, as they proudly carried union cards and showed solidarity with labor in the days before the Red Scare."A major problem in the US according to Stanley Aronowitz, author of Jobless Future, is that, despite all the talk of 21st-Century changes and challenges, "We don't have a culture of resistance anymore. The university system, which should be a facility educating people for the civil society, is almost totally sold out to the corporate economy.""We need a revival of utopian thought," said Aronowitz. "Where are our Margaret Sangers? We're moving toward a passive police state."And Friedan agreed that companies wouldn't do much, if anything, on their own to improve the stresses on today's workers. "There has to be a great coming together of all of us on this issue. At this stage of the game, sexual politics are diversionary. The political establishment doesn't want to talk about it; neither party. It's seen as being too divisive. But they simply don't want to upset their corporate sponsors, that's all."Who is speaking for the people?," asked Friedan. "The people themselves have to get into the streets again and be heard on these issues."


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