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By Nathan Bierma


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This Week:

TAKE WHAT BACK?

I missed Take Back Your Time Day last month. I was busy working. Time Day, as envisioned by Cornell's Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy, was to be devoted to a national conversation about work and balance in our society, an occasion to think about the toll our work week takes on our health and sanity. "Organizers hope that Take Back Your Time Day will do for Americans' overworked and stressed out lives what Earth Day did for the planet," said a press release at www.timeday.org. The governor of Michigan was on board, calling for statewide observance of Time Day and for discussion of "time poverty."

The Time Day campaign reminds us of the irony that people living in a prosperous technological society tend to feel empty, run down, worn out. "Progress" simply has not brought us the time or contentment we were promised. In fact, we're moving in reverse. Juliet Schor, in one of her cogent books, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (reviewed here), states that although American society's productivity has roughly doubled since World War II, each year the average worker works nine additional hours. What would help considerably, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued on NPR this summer, would be a European-style four-week summer vacation. True, such a break would risk putting a dent in the economy, but well-rested workers might well be more productive and happy (and the travel industry would thrive). Of course, any law mandating such a paid vacation—bringing about increased time spent with family—would be fiercely contested by pro-business conservatives, those who champion "family values."

The Time Day press release makes a crucial point about the purpose of this reclamation of time, a point that is neglected by both Schor and Reich. Simply giving Americans more time to lounge around only goes so far; we should not strive to become a more TV-watching and beach-reclining society. What we do need is more time spent interacting, volunteering, learning, walking, reading, and reflecting. The ideal shouldn't be leisure, but wholeness. As the press release says, people should have—and then actually use—more time to pursue "good health, active citizenship … their families, nature, and the soul."

Related:

SPOT CHECK: CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Placed in subway cars, confronting bone-tired commuting workers, the advertisements come off as taunts. "Why do we work?" reads one panel, against the backdrop a beach. "Why do we live here more than our living room?" wonders another, picturing a factory. "Why do we cram into metal boxes?" reads one, set in an elevator. And so on down the length of the car. The ads are for: a travel agency? a yoga class? a religious group promoting inner peace and spiritual well-being? Try the Principal Financial Group, which, straight-faced, claims that it doesn't "just seek a paycheck. … We seek progress. … We seek to achieve. … [We are] dedicated to helping you get the most out of work." The ads lay claim to a Dilbert-like skepticism of how out of whack our working routines are, then, in the next breath, affirm the ideals of "progress" and "achieve[ment]" that fuel workaholism in the first place. Then there's Citigroup, whose warm-and-fuzzy homespun billboard aphorisms pull the exact same stunt. Don't be late for home. Hugs are on a 52-week high. The best table in the city is the one with your family around it. The tagline is, "Live Richly." The ads would be self-satirical if they weren't so sincere. Coming from a grandparent or Tuesdays With Morrie, such Thoreauvian pleas for simplicity would make you stop and think. But a bank? "We must be constantly reminded by one of the largest financial institutions in the world not to worry so much about money," Salon said of the billboard campaign. Both Principal and Citigroup seem to prefer dollars over sense. Christians would have the credibility to point this out—and explain what living "richly" truly means—if we weren't generally preoccupied with prosperity and achievement ourselves.

PLACES & CULTURE

From the New York Times:

SHANGHAI — Built on a swamp, Shanghai sank by roughly eight feet from 1921 to 1965, largely because of the draining of groundwater beneath the city. But officials managed to correct the problem and virtually stop the sinking—for a while. Statistics vary, but the city is again sinking, at roughly a centimeter a year. A study by a local institute said the sinking is worst in the downtown areas with the highest concentration of new buildings. … A planning bureau report says Shanghai now has at least 2,880 buildings of 18 stories or higher, an overwhelming majority of them constructed since the early 1990s. … The debate about curbing development in Shanghai comes as many economists and government officials are expressing concerns that the national real estate market could overheat and threaten China's economy. For now, though, regardless of what happens with the economy or the building law, cranes will still rise in Shanghai: officials say as many as 2,000 buildings of all sizes have been approved or are already under construction. Summary*

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