Taming the Time Bandit
Overworking and overconsuming gobble all our free time, but some of our neighbors have gone on a simple diet.
By Mark Gerard Hengesbaugh
DECEMBER 8, 1997: You're up before sunrise, getting the kids ready for school or helping mom dress for eldercare. Then, you crawl 30 minutes through choked I-15 traffic. You work too many hours for pay that barely covers monthly expenses. When you get back home, it's after dark and there's no time to cook, so you nuke a frozen block of processed food. You check the kids' homework, pay the bills, do some laundry. Finally, you topple into bed like a chain-sawed Christmas tree. But in a blink, your alarm clock is buzzing again.
Our frantic pace and Salt Lake City's tempo is ranked fourth in the U.S. means we are time-starved. But, if you remember back to the 1960s, futurists predicted that the biggest problem in year 2000 would be coping with all the free time we'd have. What happened?
The Jetsons we're not. We've got the timesaving devices: Jet travel, microwaves, fast-food restaurants and faxes. Yet we work more, not less. Unstructured time a day just to hang with friends or family is a true luxury.
A recent Harris poll confirms that American leisure time shrunk by nearly 40 percent within the past 20 years, but that's only half the story. During the past two decades, America's per capita consumption has risen by 45 percent.
It's not coincidental. The best-selling books Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, and Living the Simple Life, by Elaine St. James, and the buzz caused by Affluenza, a PBS documentary that aired this fall, all make a telling point: We have no free time because we work too much. We work too much because we've bought too much most of it on credit.
It's no fun to constantly hunger for time, to owe money, to miss your kid's school stage debut because you're too busy working. Americans want out of the rat race, a Merck Family Fund survey shows. And in Salt Lake City it's not difficult to find those who are "downshifting" simplifying their lives and consuming less in order to spend time and energy on what's really important to them. Downshifters are asking, why work at a job you don't like to buy things you don't need? The trend is called "voluntary simplicity."
So, how do other Salt Lakers afford to step off the 8-to-6-til-you-die hamster wheel?
Better to consider what it costs you to stay on that treadmill, suggests Dr. Todd Mangum. "Every condition I diagnose and treat is worsened by rat-race stress. The main complaint I hear from my patients is 'I don't have enough time.' So I ask, 'What is it worth to you to have your energy back? How much longer can you afford to feel sick?' I help my patients put a price tag on the rat race they're in."
Mangum has taken the slowdown cure himself. He recently moved from Manhattan to Salt Lake City. The tempo of today's managed healthcare, in which a physician is required to spend no more than 12 minutes on each patient, just "wasn't healthcare the way I wanted to deliver it," says the M.D. His job with a managed healthcare company "was secure I had good benefits. But I hated to get up and go to work at that pace."
Instead, Mangum opened his own practice. "Now, I see patients for six hours a day. I allow a minimum of 30 minutes per patient, and some visits last up to an hour-and-a-half. I work three days a week and I will go up to working four, but never to five days a week."
The pace of the two cities, Salt Lake and New York, is nearly identical, according to social psychologist Robert Levine. Salt Lake City ranked fourth just behind New York City in a study of the tempo of life in 36 U.S. cities, according to Levine's 1997 book, A Geography of Time. Researchers measured the speed of walking, speech, bank tellers and postal workers in each city. Salt Lake was the only western U.S. city in the top 20 fastest-paced cities.
Unfortunately, the 1960s futurists had it exactly backwards. The more technologically advanced a society is, the less free time it has. Salt Lakers, like Americans in most cities, are in a "time famine," Levine says.
We live in a time famine because we produce and consume more, which causes an increasing scarcity of free time in our lives. Increased efficiency means individuals produce more goods per hour. To keep the system going, we must consume more goods. Any time away from production becomes time to consume (shopping, eating, etc.) because time spent neither producing nor consuming is viewed as wasteful "doing nothing." We experience scarcity of time as increased tempo or pace.
Everyone has 24 hours a day, of course. What Americans say they lack, according to research, is time to spend on what's most important to them. Nearly three-quarters of the Americans surveyed by Merck said that what they need to make their own lives more satisfying is more time with family and friends, and less stress. Do they need more money or possessions? "Most of us buy and consume far more than we need," agreed 82 percent.
Already, one in three Americans has voluntarily taken steps that reduce their income, but which gain them more time, the study found. These are the downshifters.
But most Americans surveyed said they would give up one day of pay each week for more free time, but debt stops them. "Together we earn $100,000 a year and we still can't make ends meet," one typical Salt Lake City working couple said. Clearly, American households are hemorrhaging money.
Really, though, the simple life frugality is not a new American trend. Overconsuming on credit is. America's tradition, beginning with Ben Franklin's a-penny-saved-is-a-penny-earned sensibility, has always been thrifty. Bountiful's Richard Harris, a voluntary simplicity devotee and a retired IBM executive, watched America catch "affluenza" during his lifetime. "I was born in the '30s, during the Depression. It taught us difficult lessons about getting along without, about fixing up, and taking care of what we did have," he says.
After the Depression, World War II was a time of rationing and consumer shortages. Even in the mid-1950s, Americans bought almost nothing they didn't have the cash for, Harris says. They couldn't. For example, to buy a car on credit, you had to pay at least half the purchase price as a downpayment. "Today, Americans think that if they can afford the monthly car payment, they can afford the car," Harris marvels.
From his perch at IBM, Harris watched the advent of business computers spawn both the consumer credit industry and junk mail. "In the early 1960s, when I went to work for IBM, they had just introduced their 1401 Series computer. It was a packaged computer that allowed businesses to do serious analysis for the first time, so it was a tremendous success." Because the 1401 enabled corporations to track millions of small financial transactions easily, "consumer credit card companies formed Diners Club was the first," Harris says.
And before 1960 and the 1401 Series computer, "There was no such thing as junk mail, either," said Harris. The powerful new computers allowed business to build million-member mailing lists.
Until that time, America's economy had been about providing for citizens' needs, Harris says. In the '60s it began to manufacture "wants" in consumers, then offer easy credit to fulfill them.
The distinction between "needs" and "wants" is critical to downshifters. "There are still many things I want, but I try to remember I don't need them," says Sally Burns of Sandy. Burns switched from the corporate fast track onto the "mommy track" several years ago when her daughter was born.
It was a natural expression of Burns' core values. "My approach is, if you decide to have a child, you need to take the time to raise it." Burns, who has an MBA, left her position as product and policy development specialist for Intermountain Health Care and worked part-time after her daughter was born.
But two years ago, her daughter was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. The disease is controlled with several insulin shots and four-to-five blood tests each day. Still, when kindergarten was about to start, "I thought it was better for everyone if I quit working," Burns said. She began volunteering in her daughter's school to stay near her.
"We had to get used to less money," said Burns, whose husband is an engineer. "But we've always lived below our means and haven't burdened ourselves with crushing debt. Our lifestyle with one earner is not that different, except we save less money. I don't buy friends and family $10 or $20 gifts, I buy cards instead now. I shop at wholesale clubs, but we don't practice self denial." Her daughter wears serviceable hand-me-down clothes that her cousin has outgrown.
The Burns' have more time together now. "We can actually go hiking on weekends instead of tending the lawn and doing the chores that used to pile up for the weekend," says Burns.
A dual-wage couple spends an average of only 15 minutes a day talking to each other, one study says. And marriage counselors joke about a new syndrome they're seeing, dubbed "TINS": Two Incomes, No Sex.
But if two-income couples take the time to do the math, says Harris, that second job is often an expense, not a net income gain. With the added cost of childcare; a second car; insurance; gas; work wardrobe; shopping quickly instead of carefully; convenience food at home; and meals in restaurants; a second job in a household doesn't pay. Rather, it costs.
Merely looking for ways to increase income misses the point. You have to reduce your spending, say downshifters. To get a grip on household finances, Harris advocates the nine-step program outlined in Your Money Or Your Life. One step is to record, categorize, then total every penny you spend.
The strict bookkeeping is an eye-opener, says Harris. "We were shocked to discover we were spending $250 a month on restaurants. But it also gave us the opportunity to decide whether we wanted to spend our life's energy earning money to pay for unhealthy meals at restaurants. We cut back to one restaurant meal each month and we ended up with an extra $150. We put that in savings and found that it doesn't go away it grows. That's when you can start to get excited about savings. That's when you begin to look around for other small amounts" that you can sock away too, Harris says.
"The great thing about the Your Money Or Your Life system is that it takes you at whatever point you're at. It's not about self-sacrifice." It allows you to gather the information appropriate for making rational financial decisions. You learn to live on less and love it," Harris says.
Some choices, such as whether to buy healthcare insurance, are not so easy. Working on his own and reducing his workweek "met my expectations in every way," says physician Mangum, "except I have more anxiety about paying my own healthcare insurance and malpractice insurance. Still I wouldn't trade it for anything," he adds. "I'm happier now. My energy level is high, and I'm emotionally and physically content."
"Heathcare is a tremendous issue with people who want to break out of the rat race," said Dan Baker who moved from Salt Lake City to a remote cabin in the Arizona wilderness. "For me, breaking out is a process of letting go of things and ideas," Baker said.
"For example, you may believe it's impossible to live without healthcare insurance and immediate access to healthcare. But out here, I can see that is a modern contrivance. I have just become more careful about how I do things, and more appreciative of how my health is not in the hands of Allstate, but something larger."
Until 1995, Baker was plant manager, corporate vice president, and a founding partner in Intersep, a Salt Lake City company that produces high-quality color printing negatives. The precise specifications and tight schedules of Maalox-swilling print ad executives make the color prepress industry especially frantic.
"I was working 60 to 70 hours a week," says Baker. "And at the time, I believed the business world could be a path to do good things for people in the larger picture. I focused on business ethics, but in the end, I found too many contradictions.
"I was making lots of money, but I realized that nothing money could buy would satisfy me," Baker said. His marriage began to go sour and he realized that what he wanted most was to spend time on his close relationships, family and friends.
He cashed out and moved to Tucson, Arizona. There, he and a group of friends bought and leased a total of 5,000 acres of range on the San Pedro River. Their intention is to steward the open land that connects the river with nearby Galiuro and Aravaipa Wilderness Areas. They're running cattle on it in sustainable numbers. "We're not your garden-variety environmentalists," Baker jokes, "We're conservationists turned ranchers." Baker's wife and son live in nearby Tucson, while he lives on the land without power or indoor plumbing.
Recently, one member of Baker's group fell off a ladder and broke several ribs. They drove him 20 miles over a rocky path to get him to a clinic. It brought into focus the health insurance dilemma. "If you want to simplify, do it in steps and prepare. But," Baker added, "there are times when big, scary steps are necessary."
Voluntary simplicity is not merely nostalgia for the anti-materialist counterculture of the '60s, argues Gerald Celente, founder of Trends Research Institute and author of Trends 2000. "This is really a sea change of thought," he says. "We track 300 different trends daily, and none in the 16 years that we've been at this has generated as much interest as voluntary simplicity." Celente estimates that by the year 2000, 15 percent of America's Baby Boomers will be practicing voluntary simplicity.
Reagan-era corporate downsizing may have been the catalyst for the personal downshifting trend. In the '80s Boomers watched traditional business-world rules jerked out from under breadwinners. A corporation that an employee had poured his life's energy into for decades, for which he had frequently missed family gatherings, could now brush him off like cat hair. And involuntary simplicity layoffs, firing, downsizing sucks. If ordinary Americans are looking for a measure of financial independence, it may be because a rapacious corporate leadership has forced the issue.
In the long term, Americans spending less, buying less, and working less may mean fewer divorces, less juvenile delinquency, less therapy, a healthier population and a healthier planet. Because of our overconsumption, the average American causes 100 times more damage to the global environment than a citizen of a poor country, according to the New World Road Map Foundation.
Also, the desire to accumulate stuff may begin to wear off as Baby Boomers age. The meaning of the Italian saying, "Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box," becomes clear as Boomers care for their elderly parents and see others their own age pass away or struggle with serious illnesses, such as cancer.
Our cookie-cutter view of success must change. "The hardest thing for me is not contributing to the household income," said Burns. "I've never been that ambitious, but I did enjoy the feeling of making a contribution in the workplace and contributing to the family finances. But I've come to value greatly the contribution volunteers make since I've been working at my daughter's school."
Burns was expecting to have more free time when she quit working for IHC, but she's been volunteering with the Juvenile Diabetes Association and "investing time in my extended family."
"During the day, my daughter and I go to the library, to the park, and we do projects at home. It's very gratifying to have someone who thinks you're really neat just for being around."
Some things only time can buy.
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