Take Back Your Time Day: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty

In a few days – on 24 October – a growing number of people will acknowledge, ‘Take Back Your Time Day,’ an initiative established in 2001 by world leaders in the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, most notably, John de Graaf. This initiative falls on 24 October because that is the day many North Americans and Australians would finish work for the year if they worked the same hours per year as the typical European. It makes you think… Do we work too much? What are the personal, social, and environmental costs of overwork? Could we be better off by working less?

‘Take Back Your Time Day’ aims to challenge today’s culture of overwork and time poverty that threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment. The purpose of this initiative is provoke thought on our work habits and to suggest that many people, and indeed, many societies, could increase their well-being by consuming less stuff and reducing their working hours accordingly. In other words, ‘Take Back Your Time Day’ raises the question of whether we should be trading some of our income / consumption for more free time, more freedom.

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Rethinking attitudes to work is central to the way many participants in the Voluntary Simplicity Movement approach simple living. One simplicity theorist, Charles Siegel, poses the critical question: ‘Should we take advantage of our increasing productivity to consume more or to have more free time?’ If people keep raising their material standard of living every time they come into more money – through a pay rise, for example, or through some new technology which increases productivity per hour – working hours will never decrease and may even rise. Indeed, many Westerners, especially North Americans, Britons, Australians, and New Zealanders, are working longer hours today than they were in the 1970s, despite being considerably more productive. Generally speaking, we have directed all our wealth and productivity gains into consuming more and nicer stuff and have not taken any of those gains in terms of increased free time. But why, one might ask, should we always be working for more consumer products and services and not sometimes be content with less? Why should we not accept a lower material standard of living (e.g. old clothes, smaller house, home-grown food, no luxury travel, etc.) and work much less? Who can say what wonders such a cultural style might not bring! Henry David Thoreau’s opinion on working hours seems to exemplify the perspective widely held among participants in the Simplicity Movement:

Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. … I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well.

The basic idea here is that if people can embrace simple living and stop the upward creep of material desire, they can take some or all of their pay rises or productivity gains, not in terms of more consumption, but in terms of more free time. And this raises the questions: Are we forced by the ‘curse of labour’ to work so much? Or are we freer than we think we are? The Simplicity Movement is an example of a social movement where people are enjoying the benefits of exchanging money and consumption for more free time.

The message, in short, is this: consume less, work less, live more. It’s time to take back our time. At least, it’s time to think about it. Decide for yourself.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you think people in affluent societies could increase their well-being by consuming less stuff and reducing their working hours? I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

In simplicity,
Samuel Alexander

P.S. I’ve been contacted by a radio station wanting to interview people who have voluntarily given up a high-paid job to live more simply and with more time. If this sounds like you, and you wouldn’t mind having a short interview, then please throw me an email as soon as possible.

4 Responses to “Take Back Your Time Day: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty”

  1. Ralph says:

    I fully support the ideas in this article, working less and enjoying life more with the simple things in life that usually don’t cost much. I think that friendships and relationships are the most important thing in life and high demands of work impoverishes them.

    I have struggled with this throughout my life. I seek to live a simple lifestyle and my family aren’t doing too bad at it either, though not as committed to it as I am. But with the ever increasing prices of rent, food and everything else I still find myself working much more than what would be good for a balanced lifestyle with rich social interaction.

    I think one area where things go wrong on a larger scale is that work is supposed to be a contribution to build and support communities. But in the western capitalist model, work contributes to businesses. Of course businesses can also be seen as communities. The problem though is that the owners and share holders don’t let everyone equally benefit from the work that has been put in. The focus of business is on capital, not community.

    Businesses can also be seen as tribes that trade with other tribes (other businesses or the consumers). They try to get as much as they can from eachother. For example the housing market could be seen as a tribe who have a monopoly on the commodity of housing and who are driving up house and land prices almost indiscriminately and thus enslaving those who need housing. So nowadays we’ve got to a point where we have to work far too hard, just to survive, especially here in Sydney.

    There is a similar issue with government, where the focus is much more on money and power than on community.

    One of the answers may be starting Simplicity Social Enterprises which sow all profits back into the community they are part of. Another answer is to vote for progressive socially conscious governments, rather than conservative ones whose main focus is the economy.

  2. Ralph says:

    A further aspect is that people and countries who respect God (ie. for real, not just “lipservice”) will as a matter of course also respect each other more and circumvent the pitfalls mentioned above. On top of that, we can read in the Bible the promises of wellbeing and welfare God has for them (cf Psalm 33:12).

  3. Mark says:

    Thanks for opening this topic for discussion.

    In 1995 I made the deliberate decision to reduce the time I spent working for money to about half-time equivalent. I started working three days a week and taking four day “weekends” and so did my spouse. This is a decision neither of us has ever regretted as it has given us abundant leisure to spend with each other, helping to build community in various ways, and also on personal and spiritual growth activities. This practice is something we have maintained to the present day.

    Factors that enabled this choice included both of us being in a position to command relatively high per hour pay rates—something that would be more difficult for someone earning a lower wage. We were also in occupations that made part-time work with benefits an option. Also we happen to live in a country with socialized medicine, thus freeing us from the fear of losing our home or savings to medical expenses as is the case for many Americans today. Finally, partly because of the age at which we made this decision, our mortgage was mostly paid off–a major household expense–which further reduced our need for income.

    The decision to live this way has not been without costs. Voluntarily living on a reduced income requires more or less continual financial prudence and forethought—something that many people seem to find onerous, although I don’t know why really. We have also have not been able to save as much for “retirement” because of our reduced income compared to others who participate in the workforce full-time. On the other hand, our whole life is rather like semi-retirement and we’ve now had long practice at making a little do. The transition from working for an income to retirement will be much less of a transition for us than for people who are accustomed to a high income and not much used to keeping track of where it goes. Having lived both ways, on the whole, I prefer the simpler way hands down.

    This whole topic touches on a related issue which has been in the news lately–the demonstrations going on in France around the government’s decision to raise the age of entitlement for retirement benefits from 60 to 62–a cost-cutting measure for the French government. This represents a forced seizure of leisure time being driven by consequences from the financial meltdown of 2008. I think about this in the context of simple living in as much as one can be prudent and disciplined in the stewardship of one’s own household only to find that government decisions to subsidize the greed of market speculators and financial charlatans is transferred by fiat to the rest of us. I’m concerned about this because as long as such practices are allowed to continue the choice to live simply and opt for increased leisure rather than income will always be subordinated to the desire of governments to sustain the status quo of market capitalism serving a consumer culture of the pathologically greedy and the consumption addicted. This is something we somehow have to address collectively, though I’m neither legally nor politically competent to suggest how.

  4. Ellen Regos says:

    At the age of 18 I was given the best advice a mother could give a daughter when deciding upon a career ‘follow your passion’ she advised me. And that is what I have done ever since. My passion has led me from art, to teaching, to ecology, to inner development, to motherhood, to writing, to gardening, to poetry, to ‘sucking the marrow out of life’ as Thoreau so aply put it. So in this context what is ‘work’ anyway? Have I ever really ‘worked’ if my life has been woven with the threads of pleasure sown on the fertile ground of my passion? Perhaps this discussion needs reframing and the term ‘work’ recontextualised. So that how we exchange our time for our livelihood becomes the fulcrum of this discussion.

  5. […] For a related (and somewhat overlapping) post on ‘Take Back Your Time Day,’ click here. […]

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