Ann Perry

September 29, 2002

In 1970, a group of activists launched Earth Day, which galvanized the environmental movement and led to sweeping governmental reforms.

Today another group is planning in the same way to raise the general consciousness about the threat to another American resource time.

Take Back Your Time Day is scheduled for Oct. 24, 2003, nine weeks before the end of the year, symbolizing the 350 more hours annually that Americans work on average than Europeans do. Participants will be encouraged to just say no to the overwork, overscheduling and overstress that threaten to overwhelm.

"This is not about being anti-work," says John de Graaf, an event organizer and Seattle public television producer. "This is about finding balance."

Of all the industrialized nations, says de Graaf, only South Korea has workers who put in more time at work than we do. The typical American gets 13 days of vacation, while 26 percent get none at all.

"We're the only industrialized country in the world with no minimum guaranteed vacation of a least four weeks," says de Graaf. "We're No. 1 in overwork."

Of course, the titans of U.S. industry will point to Europe and say the lifestyle is bad for the economy. To which de Graaf responds, "What is an economy for?"

While all our long hours at the office are good for the gross domestic product, they're wreaking havoc with our lives, he says, from our health to family relations. Just consider the following:

Time pressure is one of the main reasons that Americans get too little sleep, too little exercise and eat far too many high-calorie processed fast foods. A slower pace could lead to better health and lower health-care costs, among the fastest-rising expenses for most American families.

Building strong families and relationships takes time, notes de Graaf. Children's lives can be as frenetic as their parents'. Americans often have to plan months in advance to arrange a social engagement with friends.

Time urgency can lead to safety issues. In an extreme form, urgency can be translated into "free-floating hostility" that erupts into road rage. On the other end of the spectrum, exhaustion from lack of sleep leads to thousands of traffic accidents each year.

Belonging to a community takes time, whether getting to know the neighbors or volunteering in a local project. More time also allows for political participation and even voting. It's no accident, says de Graaf, that Europeans tend to vote in far higher percentages than do Americans, who often cite lack of time as their reason for failing to make it to the voting booth.

We all tell ourselves that we're working so hard to make more money. But is more money really the answer to balancing our personal finances?

"People should think what it costs them to lead this frantic overworked lifestyle," de Graaf says. As an example, he describes the harried worker who throws a package of pre-scrambled eggs in the microwave rather than take a few minutes to cook a far less expensive breakfast.

People think of big box stores like Wal-Mart or Target as places to save money on items, he notes. But while consumers might go in to purchase one item on sale, "They buy more on impulse than they save."

Hurried and stressed consumers are a merchant's dream. They not only buy on impulse, but also for convenience, because of guilt and out of desperation and all at prices higher than they would have paid under more leisurely circumstances.

They also play right into the hands of credit-card issuers and banks, which are quick to issue credit and even quicker to levy late fees and higher interest rates that go on costing more month after month.

And as for the big-ticket personal finance items, it's no wonder that Americans spend more time planning their one-week vacations than their 20-year retirements. They need the first so desperately, and don't have time to marshal the resources for the second.

So how can the American work/lifestyle be changed? Is this just a pipe dream? De Graaf, of course, makes it sound not so impossible.

He says many personnel directors at large companies would actually like to see employees ease off on their hours. In lean times, some employers are already trying out the idea of giving vacation weeks to everyone without pay rather than lay off some.

Still others are experimenting with the idea of trading off shorter work hours for greater job security, rather than the current system of extremes whereby companies engage high numbers of employees during good times, then lay off workers and make those remaining carry high amounts of overtime. "Unemployment and overwork are two sides of the same coin," says de Graaf.

He predicts there will be a huge interest in Time Day. "We right now have 70 colleges and universities lined up to do teach-ins."

Expect to hear and see more. (Proposed bumper stickers include "Time Is A Family Value," "There's No Present Like The Time" and "Medieval Peasants Worked Less Than You Do.")

To be put on the mailing list, send an e- mail message to John de Graaf at jdegraaf@kcts.org. The feds giveth and California taketh away.

Last week I wrote that teachers are eligible for a new federal tax break to offset the cost of classroom books and supplies. But I misinformed readers when I stated that California currently has a tax credit for teachers who buy supplies out of pocket.

The Teacher Retention Credit, which offered a tax credit of $250 to $1,500 to credentialed teachers starting in the year 2000, was suspended by the state Legislature this year due to budget shortfalls.

The one-year suspension is for the 2002 tax year. Teachers who have already made expenditures will not be able to carry them forward to the next tax year.

Unlike the now-suspended California credit, the federal break is a $250 tax deduction, which can help reduce taxable income in 2002 and 2003. Educators need not itemize to take the deduction.

Ann Perry can be reached at moneyperry@aol.com.