Oh, So It’s Called “Time Poverty”

The act of naming something is incredibly powerful, since naming not only defines a phenomenon but can render it visible. Think how hard it would be to fight for justice if we didn’t have the words “racism” and “sexism” in our vocabulary, and the corresponding concepts as part of our world view.

I just found the name for a phenomenon I’ve been pondering for a while. It’s “Time Poverty,” the paucity of non-work-occupied time in our lives. It’s a nifty term because it takes the focus (and blame and shame) of living an overworked, imbalanced life away from the individual and directs it where in many cases it more properly belongs: society.

The term seems to have been coined by a group called Take Back Your Time which says on its homepage:

“Millions of Americans are overworked, over-scheduled and just plain stressed out…We’re putting in longer hours on the job now than we did in the 1950s, despite promises of a coming age of leisure before the year 2000….In fact, we’re working more than medieval peasants did, and more than the citizens of any other industrial country….Mandatory overtime is at near record levels, in spite of a recession….On average, we work nearly nine full weeks (350 hours) LONGER per year than our peers in Western Europe do….Working Americans average a little over two weeks of vacation per year, while Europeans average five to six weeks. Many of us (including 37% of women earning less than $40,000 per year) get no paid vacation at all….Contemporary Americans complain of unprecedented levels of busyness in everyday life. They worry about frenetic schedules, hurried children, couples with no time together, families who rarely eat meals together, and an onslaught of “hidden work” from proliferating emails, junk mail, and telemarketing calls. The Girl Scouts recently introduced a “Stress Free” merit badge for today’s harried young girls.”

Time Poverty degrades our quality of life, relationships, and communities. It also results in a less politically engaged populace – engagement takes time, after all. It’s a big problem.

Time Poverty is particularly pernicious when employer/societal pressures to overwork mesh with one’s own workaholic tendencies. I’ve been there, and I know many others have, too. In the time management section of The Lifelong Activist, I quote sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book The Time Bind, in which she postulates that many cases of workaholism arise because people’s work lives are simpler and more gratifying than their home lives:

“In her book…Hochschild recalls seeing numerous instances of people working overtime at a company she studied when they had no obvious financial or other need for doing so. Here’s one example:

“What worried Joann about her overwork . . . was that she didn’t quite know why she was doing it. None of her explanations satisfied her. “The money’s nice; but it’s not worth it when you live at work,” she concluded. But at the same time, she wasn’t changing her hours…

“Examples such as Joann, Hochschild said, caused her to wonder, ‘. . . how many other people were driving around their own ‘country roads’ at midnight, asking themselves why their lives are the way they are, never quite grasping the link between their desire for escape and a company’s desire for profit.’”

Time Poverty is a problem that will (gotcha!) take time to solve. A good first step, however, is recognizing it in one’s own life and determining its causes.

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