THE eight-hour workday was created couched in the slogan: eight hours for work; eight hours for rest; eight hours for what we will.
This was the American dream: (First, imagine you’re a man.) You wake up and read the paper while eating a wholesome breakfast your wife made for you. You walk 15 minutes down Main Street to the factory, clock in your eight hours, walk home and put your feet up with a beer while your wife is making dinner.
In the evening, you toss the ball around with your kid, tinker on a hobby project, read or make love. You get eight hours of sleep. And the weekend — oh, the weekend! You don’t think about work at all for two days. You go fishing, go to church or temple, share long meals with family.
Is this how your life looks? Not mine. Maybe this sounds more familiar:
Male or female, despite your college education, your income alone is insufficient to cover your family’s expenses, so your spouse also works full-time. You spend one to two hours commuting.
There is no one at home to take care of the full-time job of running a household. Your children are raised by day-care centers and after-school programs. You eat whatever you can pop in the microwave for 10 minutes. You spend the evening doing dishes, paying bills, mowing the lawn. You are lucky if you get six or seven hours of sleep.
On the weekend, you do laundry, shop for groceries and, likely, catch up on work. You might watch the game or go for a bike ride.
Meanwhile, your co-workers are getting laid off, and their jobs are passed to you, with no relief from your already 40-hour-plus workload, and with no pay raise. You can take a sick day or vacation day, but you would make that time up one way or another.
Productivity is at an all-time high. Corporate profits are rising. Yet, you, the average U.S. worker, has less leisure time than ever.
What happened to our eight hours of sleep? Our eight hours of unstructured time? Our weekend? How did our lives get so out of balance? In a country of great prosperity, safety and personal freedom, to say, “something isn’t right” seems ungrateful. But we are overwhelmed by the pace of life. We must slow down.
Slowing down doesn’t mean going backward. But it can be useful to imagine life long before the Industrial Revolution started treating people like machines of productivity.
In earlier human societies, work and life were not separate. Your daily work contributed directly to the livelihood of family and community.
You worked a long, difficult day, but you did one day’s worth of work per day. Most jobs were performed in groups. Work was accompanied by singing and punctuated with siestas.
Variety was endemic. No one plugged widget A into slot B or sat at a desk for eight hours. You shared your bounty with other members of your community, and shared music and stories around the fire. Your community valued cooperation, resilience and stewardship of place.
Blending these two models — the eight-hour workday and the focus on community — you can imagine a modern balance for your life.
Both you and your partner do purposeful, fulfilling work. Technologies, machines and money are your tools, not your masters. Your hours are flexible and your wages are livable, so both of you have time to contribute to child- or elder-care and household upkeep.
Perhaps you grow and raise some food and share resources within your community of diverse skills and talents. You are less dependent on cash. The connectedness you feel to the Earth and other people makes retail therapy obsolete. You have time to be contemplative, to go hiking, to play in a band and to engage in civic life.
You have time to rest.
Is this possible? It is. Start by simply asking the question: “How do I spend my time?”
Karen Schraven is a sustainability consultant and graduate student at Antioch University in Seattle.