A New Relationship With Time

The drop in per capita employment could set the stage for a more balanced way of living

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 11
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

One of the most pervasive – and personal – signs of distress in our society is the dissatisfaction so many people feel in their relationship with time. Lots of people feel they have too little. Some have too much. Few are pleased or at peace.

The causes of this dissatisfaction are deeply entangled with some of the major cultural forces that are driving change in our society. In this article I’d like to explore the shape of that entanglement, and look at how we might start to find our way out of it.

JOBS ARE GETTING SCARCE

Sometimes we fail to see great opportunities because, to our conventional eyes, they look like impending disasters.

This is certainly the case with the trends surrounding employment. It is becoming increasingly clear that jobs, and especially good jobs, are getting harder to come by on a global basis. The graph that follows sums up the result of a detailed analysis of "job-less growth" by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): In the 15 years from 1975 to 1990, Gross World Product (GWP) per capita increased by about 20 percent while per capita employment dropped by 1.2 percent.

Looking into the future, the UNDP projects that the ratio of employment to GWP will continue to drop. Assuming that the GWP continues its long-term trend, per capita employment in 2000 will have dropped by another 8 percent!

Even this may be overly optimistic. J.W. Smith (see page 18) estimates that, even for our present level of consumption, about half the work in the US is unproductive and unnecessary. And if our society were to take sustainability seriously – with long-life products and efficient use of resources – we would cut down the necessary work still further. From a purely efficiency point of view, we could thus have more (perhaps much more) than a 50 percent drop in per capita employment.

As a society, we have attempted to resist the long-term trends that are driving per capita employment down. We have pumped up demand through advertising and an ethic of consumerism. When agricultural jobs declined, we expanded manufacturing. When manufacturing jobs declined, we expanded services. And all along we have turned a blind eye to many wasteful practices as long as they created jobs.

But these strategies are now running out of steam. International competition is forcing companies (and countries) to eliminate waste that they tolerated before. The damage our consumerism has wrought on the environment is becoming better understood, and for many, the thrill and glamour of consumerism is fading. The service industries are starting to make significant improvements in productivity, thus reducing their employment needs. Ecological and social constraints are beginning to slow economic growth all over the world. All in all, a steep drop in per capita employment may be unavoidable.

Given our present social and economic systems, such a drop would be disastrous, because jobs play at least three roles: they contribute to the production of goods and services, they provide the employed and his or her family with income, and they often provide the employed with a sense of worth, identity, and purpose.

What are our options as a society to respond to this "employment crisis"? The basic responses I see fall into the following groups:

* We can continue to create "make-work" through unproductive and unnecessary jobs, whether in the public or private sectors. This may be the path of least short-term resistance, but it is basically a pitiful attempt to shore up a failing system. It is fundamentally a destructive approach that wastes lives and wastes the environment, and its consequences are already becoming visible. Competitive pressure may make this no longer a viable option even in the short term.

* We can adopt a Social Darwinist approach – "Let the unemployed starve." Globally, we are already doing this to some extent, and our present treatment of the homeless has a Social Darwinist flavor to it.

This approach also leads to disaster. In addition to all the strong moral reasons against it, it is a highly polarizing approach that breeds violence and terrorism. As our world becomes ever more highly interconnected, maintaining the gulf between the haves and the have nots becomes ever more costly, impractical, and dangerous.

* We can adopt a welfare approach in which we tax the employed to provide an income for the unemployed. This approach has worked to some extent as long as the number of unemployed was small or everyone felt that unemployment would be temporary. Those assumptions haven’t held for some time, and the trends all suggest they will apply even less in the future. The result has been a considerable revolt among the working public, who feel over-taxed as well as over-worked. So this too is neither a morally appealing nor a practical way to address the long-term downturn in per capita employment.

* We can create a new ethic. The presently employed can work less, thereby spreading a smaller work load among more people. Working less may for some mean a shorter workweek, while for others it could mean long leaves or sabbaticals alternating with intense periods of work. I know a doctor who shared a practice with two other doctors. Each worked 8 months per year, with staggered schedules so that there were always two of them on the job. The possible variations are endless (see page 39).

This last approach has its challenges and obstacles as well, but it is the option with by far the most positive consequences. To understand some of those consequences, we need to disentangle a few more of the trends around our relationship with time.

WHERE DOES THE TIME GO?

The statistics on productivity present us with a paradox: If we’re so darned efficient, how come we’re so harried? Why isn’t this supposedly productive life providing us with more satisfaction and sense of meaning? There are many reasons:

1) It is important to recognize that not everyone in the society feels time-poor. Indeed, the society seems to be splitting into those with too little free time and those with too much.

John P. Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, for three decades has been studying how Americans spend their time. What he and others find is that those with the least amount of free time are men and women, aged 36 to 50, with jobs. Youth, seniors, and the unemployed have the most free time [American Demographics, July 1989]. Some of these are using this time well, but for many it becomes a wasteland of boredom and disengagement, filled all too often with TV, video, other forms of commercial entertainment, and substance abuse.

The most appealing way out of this imbalance, which hurts both the overworked middle and the under-engaged at the ends of the life span, is for those in the middle to work less. The most obvious consequences would be more free time for the employed middle and more jobs available for youth, seniors, and the unemployed middle.

Yet there is another consequence that may be at least as important. A significant number of those now working less would use some of their additional free time to be active and productive in their households and in their community. Many would volunteer with groups working in some way for the common good. Their involvement would bring a vitality to the family, community, and non-profit worlds that would enable more engagement by youth and seniors in settings that are not as demanding as the world of paid work has become. The benefits for society could be enormous.

2) How we use our free time contributes significantly to the satisfaction we get from it. Almost all the increase in free time from 1965 to 1985 went into additional TV viewing. Other categories that increased were sports and outdoor activities, family conversations and adult education. Categories that declined include reading, visiting, and going to church, clubs, and cultural events – activities that build community [American Demographics, November 1990].

Getting the presently overworked to work less could help to reinvigorate community life in powerful ways, as it did in the Kellogg experiment (see page 34), providing more satisfying free time options for everyone.

3) Increased productivity in the economy can lead to an "arms race" at the personal level that is as wasteful and destructive as arms races have been in international relations. Here’s how this paradox works: Increased productivity shrinks the available employment. The fear produced by this shrinking job market gets many people to try harder to stay employable. They devote more of their time either to work or to "success-enhancing" activities such as more job-related education, networking, clothes buying, etc. As some people gain a benefit through this strategy, others rush to catch up and a new basic standard is set. The net result is that everyone is now working harder to stay in the same relative place.

This gets carried further among parents who want to make sure their children have a good seat at the shrinking job table of the future. To stay ahead of the pack, parents and children must rush from one enrichment activity to another. It is no wonder that the parents, many of whom are also trapped in their own "success-enhancing" arms race, feel harried!

When unemployment becomes really severe, this kind of personal competition can spill over into ethnic, racial, and class conflicts, and even into war. That was certainly the case in World War II, and it is probably no coincidence that Yugoslavia suffered a long period of economic decline and unemployment before its present tragic civil war.

The only real way to bring peace to the employment arms race is for jobs to be better distributed so that everyone can be secure in their ability to get the employment they need. Given the close connection between personal insecurity and hostility between groups, this may be a necessary requirement for global peace as well.

4) Possessions demand more time than we often realize. If you buy a camera, or a pair of skis, or a food processor, or a hundred other similar items, you must spend the working time to pay for the item, for all associated taxes, for a home big enough to store all these possessions, and for their upkeep. You then need to spend the personal time to shop for it (including whatever research you do), to use it, to maintain it, protect it, and eventually dispose of it. Item by item, this may not seem like a great burden, but as the possessions accumulate, so do the total time demands.

We can get out of this trap and yet still have access to lots of things if we develop strong bonds of community and friendship. Then many items can be shared in their use, and only one (or a few) of the sharers needs to attend to all the other time demands associated with that item. The rub is that building strong relationships also takes time, but many people would come out ahead – in many more ways than just time – if they worked less, had less money to buy things with, spent more time on relationships, and did more sharing.

5) The 24-hour availability of so many things-to-do plus the speed of modern communications have deprived many of us of enforced downtime – time when it is socially acceptable to just sit around. Downtime may not look like it is good for much, but in fact it is vitally important for our health and creativity, not to mention our enjoyment of life.

Because this downtime no longer comes to us just through the normal course of life, we need to develop new social norms that encourage and support people taking the downtime they need. The changes in attitudes needed for these new social norms are essentially the same as those needed to encourage the most employable adults to choose to spend less time in paid employment.

Again and again the result is the same: spreading paid work to a broader proportion of the society, and spreading social value and meaning beyond paid work has cascading benefits for everyone.

The articles that follow explore the means and benefits to be gained from this spreading. We hope you will find reading them to be time well spent.

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