Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: Take Back Your Time

After borrowing Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America, edited by John de Graaf, from the library, I let it languish on the shelf for weeks. I think I found this title based on a recommendation from another book and quite frankly, I didn't have high hopes for it. I figured it would basically boil down to reduce your expenses and work less. And who hasn't heard that message before? Or that it would be about trying to enact policy changes, which while important, could take so long that I'd never see it happen in my lifetime anyway. So, yeah, expectations were not high.

But eventually I got around to reading the book and I have to say, it was the very opposite of what I expected. As usual, there is a lot more to this issue than it appears. Take back your time details the connection between many of the world's social problems, including the environment, health, crime, transportation, etc., and our ever increasing work hours. Each chapter is an essay written by a different author, many of whom you've probably  heard of many before, including Juliet Schor, David Wann, Vicki Robin and Cecile Andrews. This is the second book I've read recently that uses this essay format (hey! another review coming...sometime) and I really like it. No only do you hear about different sides of an issue from many different voices, but if there is a particular side you are less interested in, well you can get the gist in a shirt amount of time. It's also a great way to find out about new authors who may be of interest.

I especially enjoyed the book's explanation of the differences in work hours between the US and Europe. As workers became more productive during and after the industrial revolution, Europeans fought for reduced hours and more time off instead of increased wages. Americans made the opposite choice of course, and though many predicted that our work hours would be drastically reduced by now, and certainly less than 40 hours per week, in reality they keep increasing.

Favorite bits:
  • What's the economy for anyway? We're told to shop, among other things, for the good of the economy, but what is the economy for anyway? Are we supposed to serve the economy or is it supposed to serve us.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans have the shortest vacations in the industrialized world (those Socialist bastards!!). We are also the only country in the industrialized world without a minimum paid-leave law. Even the Chinese get a mandated three weeks off (p. 22).
  • It's not just adults who are overscheduled, but children as well.
  • Our desire to keep our health insurance benefits ties us to jobs that are bad for our health. (But we can't possibly provide universal health care, cause then we'd be Socialist bastards too!)
  • The US is not very healthy compared to other industrial countries, despite spending almost half of the world's health care budget. In the early 1950s, the US was one of the healthiest countries in the world, but by 1960 it had sunk to 13th healthiest, ranked by number of years lived. Today we are 25th, behind almost all other rich countries and some poor ones as well.
  • Lack of time has severe environmental consequences as well. "The message we get every day is hurry up and consume. But many scientists now agree that overconsumption is the world's most serious environmental threat, because for every product we consume, an average of 20 times its weight in raw materials was consumed to make it (p. 96).
  • "Our industrial society is poverty-stricken in the time we have to live as compared to most of the rest of humanity throughout history. Even the majority of slaves in the ancient world and serfs during the Middle Ages did not work as hard, as regularly, or as long as we do (p. 115).
Lest these points depress you, the book as plenty of ideas for solutions too,m both within and outside of the realm of public policy. But I'll leave you to read the book and find out those for yourselves.

In summary, Take Back Your Time is definitely worth the time it takes to read it. Rating: 4/5.0.


  1. Wow! I'll have to see if I can make time for this one... yuk yuk yuk!

    Seriously, I could write a novel on this topic, and it is always validating to have actual data to back up one's personal beliefs.

    "Even the majority of slaves in the ancient world and serfs during the Middle Ages did not work as hard, as regularly, or as long as we do." Now that's downright horrifying!

    I sort of feel like I've been beating this drum for most of my adult life. I was raised by a mother who pretty much believed that no matter how hard you were working, it wasn't enough, and I guess I've pretty much spent the rest of my life rebelling against that approach.

    My first real introduction to the idea that maybe there was another way, was the year I spent in Norway. Did you feel the same way when you were there? It was sort of a shock to my system to suddenly be in a world without before and after school activities or commitments taking up every free minute. I literally didn't know what to do with myself! I remember being totally shocked that everybody got 2 weeks off work at Christmas, and a week at Easter, and then the whole month of August.

    And to tell the truth, I sort of think that the culture and I are going in totally opposite directions in this regard. I can't even imagine trying to tackle a full time job at this point in my life... and I know that with smart phones and text messaging and FaceBook and all the other stuff that I avoid like the plague, it's even worse now than it was when I was working. I simply can't imagine how anybody does it and maintains any semblance of sanity.

    But here's the thing... I think that this is all connected to our culture's totally messed up relationship with human emotions. I'm not sure why, but we Americans, as a society, have a very hard time accepting that there are things we feel which we are not in control of. And it seems to me that staying crazy busy is the accepted manner of dealing with (or rather NOT dealing with) all of those pent up feelings.

    I know there's more to it than that, but I can't help but believe that we are complicate in our own frenzy.

    I'd better stop before I burst a blood vessel, but I think I must read this book!

    1. I definitely remember noticing and loving the extra vacation in Norway, but I didn't think too much about the lack of before and after school activities. I wasn't overscheduled as a kid (which I am grateful for) so it wasn't that big of a change for me personally.

      I'm still stuck on figuring out how to make enough money to not have to have a full time job. I have to admit I feel like I'll be stuck until retirement.

  2. Ha! Ooops... the second to last sentence was supposed to say complicit not complicate! That's what you get for being in a hurry and just accepting the first option the spell checker gives you! :~)

  3. This is why I'm planning my move to Europe! I never understood why Americans don't take advantage of higher productivity to demand as a group for less work hours or at the very least more flexibility at work. At my company, it's ok to work from home if it benefits them like they need you on a weekend, but not the other way around.

    1. It really seems like Europeans have the right idea about so many things, buying quality over quantity of stuff; valuing time over money, eating fresh food over processed. Where did we go so wrong?!

    2. I think they think collectively while Americans are too individualistic. We're never going to get far with the mentality that each family/person has to figure it out for themselves on issues like family leave, vacation, etc.. With this mentality, the very rich will always win out over the little guy.


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