Put time on your side

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With all the new-fangled technology and consumer must-haves that we work long hours to afford, it seems we haven't realised what it's really cost us.

'Maybe our conventional work, long hours and luxury cars aren't the smartest route to joy. Maybe there are better ways of producing and consuming that make more meaningful use of our short time on Earth.' - Rosie Walford. Photo / Thinkstock
'Maybe our conventional work, long hours and luxury cars aren't the smartest route to joy. Maybe there are better ways of producing and consuming that make more meaningful use of our short time on Earth.' - Rosie Walford. Photo / Thinkstock

Recently I watched an ad for BMW, and it promised me joy. Like many fine and costly things, driving that car would feel sleek and powerful at times, for sure. But in return for those moments, I'd have to put in long late hours, month after month, doing stressful competitive work. I'd have to see less of my partner, ignore my garden and forgo the chance to swim daily in the afternoon sea. All of which bring me joy today.

Around 1820, William Wordsworth wrote that "getting and spending we lay waste our powers".

I'm beginning to think it goes further than that: in the average Auckland pattern of getting and spending, we sell the majority of our waking hours to our employers at a price that is far below what they mean to us. We sacrifice our time - the most valuable commodity of all.

I once visited an isolated village in Ecuador which was about to embark on an eco-tourism scheme. Until this point it hadn't been part of the cash economy.

Mornings, I observed, were hard: women tramped out into the forest to forage for fruit before breakfast, and had to light a fire to brew their morning tea. But every afternoon, by two o'clock, the men of this village were playing ball and the women were gossiping around the community tap.

Back in the World of Convenience and Choice, we get to click the kettle and open a fridge at mealtimes - but how many of us spend afternoons chatting or playing with those we love? Most people I know are stuck at work, paying off their mortgages and electrical appliances.

Each morning clocks ring them out of their sleep, then summon them into meetings, hurry them back from lunchbreaks, and keep them away from home till late, even if they are exhausted or unproductive. They have almost no time to call their own. Have advancement, technology and wealth really delivered us from toil?

I've noticed that today, most families need two wage earners, as opposed to only 50 years ago when one was enough. Each of these average working people are putting in 180 more hours of work per year than they were in 1979.

And, as our individual hours of work have increased, so the general pace of life has sped up. An international study from the 1990s used walking speed as a proxy measure for the pace of life, and found that sure enough, the very steps we take have accelerated annually, over the last 15 years.

Yet somehow the faster we go, the less time we seem to have. Almost everyone I know complains about not having enough time, as if it has been stolen from them.

What's going on? Statistically, over the past three decades, households have been putting more and more time into paid labour, and less time into home production.

Working late, we compensate by buying more prepared goods - like ready-meals - and using more services like carwashes, alterations, manicures. (At the end of a big day in the city, I'll reach for the Regal, forgetting the beloved fish-smoker on my deck. I'll have missed my fisherman neighbour coming home with his bounty anyway).

Even our leisure is commodified: for any given hour of free time, research shows there's more spectatorship and less participation than before. More Rainbow's End and fewer treasure hunts; more dollars spent. Whether working or at leisure we have gradually been encouraged to put an increasing proportion of our time into market activity.

We're also consuming more quickly. We replace our sofas twice as fast as we used to. Electronics keep needing an upgrade. Clothes gallop through our wardrobes at unbelievable speed. Of course, shirts still function as shirts when we ditch them, but faster and faster, they cease to be the style we want, or others have the same and the next trend appeals. No wonder natural resources and landfills are reaching their limits.

And how did it come to this? Advertising keeps magnifying our desires. This year's Adidas gear only costs a few dollars to make, and barely improves functionally on last year's models yet it commands huge sums and ardent wanting. London's recent riots were spread by tweets saying things like "get free stuff". Looters, already wearing full Adidas outfits, ran the risk of imprisonment for the latest kit. They'd been exhorted to want not just functional products like sneakers and hoodies, but the social meanings and symbolic values of this season's range.

We are all, always, being invited to consume more new styles, extra conveniences and "better" things. Which means we must either get into debt, or work more to earn more. Or both.

No wonder we (and the planet) are becoming exhausted.

Getting into debt, working more to earn more, or both - these are what economists call growth.

No political party other than the Green Party even questions whether this conventional economic logic is what we want or need now.

Culturally we equate being busy - the state of being short of time - with goodness and success. I'm often greeted with the question "Are you busy at the moment?". To reply "No, not particularly" would be considered self-disparaging - perhaps even evidence of failure.

We're all born with roughly a billion heartbeats. According to the actuary tables, I, in my mid-forties, may have 12,147 days left. Isn't there something more? Aren't there better ways to live?

Maybe our conventional work, long hours and luxury cars aren't the smartest route to joy. Maybe there are better ways of producing and consuming that make more meaningful use of our short time on Earth.

Economist Juliet Schor has ideas on this. In her book Plenitude, she proposes that there is a way forward, a chance to be rich in the things that matter to us most while producing, consuming and working in patterns rather different to these which we've adopted so far.

The first of Plenitude's four principles concerns a new allocation of time. With impressive economic substantiation, Schor shows how whole societies would work if time-stressed households made trade-offs of income for time, and deliberately redirected those freed-up hours.

Some of the time could be deployed to replace higher priced food, energy and consumer goods with home-made or locally produced alternatives. (That's me with my fish smoker, and keeping my bees). Some time would go into social relationships - another form of wealth (Hello, neighbouring fisherman ...). And some would be for all those leisure activities which aren't commercialised (Can you pick me some lemons? I've got a cold ...). Reclaiming time at home, Plenitude style, would free up resources, reduce our carbon footprint, and replenish the local human connections that became so depleted in the boom years.

This idea may contradict the maxims of the past 25 years and make GDP-focused politicians howl. But Gary Becker, a Chicago economist, measured real household allocation of time and quantified a strangely obvious fact: society might recognise wages as returns to employment, but activities that don't earn dollars create returns as well: the cooked meal, completed tax return, cared for child, mastery of a musical instrument, or time with a friend.

How comforting to remember that things we traditionally consider uneconomic actually strengthen our networks of reciprocity, which in turn give us access to the resources and life that we want.

Plenitude reminds us what happens when we hop off the work-and-consume rabbit-wheel. Schor may sound pompous when she calls making, growing, repairing, and doing things for ourselves "self-provisioning", but she restates a liberating truth - the less we have to buy, the less we have to earn. We can reclaim our time, and do things we enjoy, producing top quality products that wouldn't necessarily be available otherwise.

We can be high-tech and innovate - organisations like Ooooby employ internet connectivity to help people distribute and trade the fruits of their backyards. DIY can become an economically viable use of time.

Plenitude advocates a form of passionate consumption which is deliberate in the creation of rich, materially bountiful lifestyles. It recognises the value of time, and natural resources like clean air and water, things that currently - and disastrously - are not incorporated in basic accounting today. It might require businesses to take back whatever they sell, while we revel in fabulous durable tailoring, low impact electronics, delicious local food.

This possibility of a materially bountiful world in which jobs take up less of our time may seem utopian, especially now, when a scarcity mentality dominates the economic conversation. But there are already signs that a culture shift is underway.

We are tiring of rush and stress. We've hurtled from consumer boom to ecological and economic bust. Facing this period of stagnation especially, it makes sense for us as individuals to pioneer a new approach. As Gandhi said, "there is more to life than increasing its speed".

- NZ Herald

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