In his heart he is an activist. In his mind, he is an inspiring visionary. And through his work, John de Graaf, award-winning director of the PBS "Affluenza" series and national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time movement, compels his audience to pause and reflect.
"My heart is in making a better world," said de Graaf, acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Queen Anne resident and Coe Elementary School parent. "The Take Back Your Time movement is a strategic decision based on my efforts to create a better society," he said.
On Tuesday, March 29, at Coe, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., de Graaf will discuss "time poverty" and the effects it has on families, health and the environment.
"What I am seeing in society as a whole is that overwork and crazy schedules are hugely detrimental," said de Graaf during a recent interview in Uptown. "We are not paying enough attention to it."
Overwork and "time poverty" are societal issues that de Graaf never anticipated. In the late 1960s, while he studied sociology in college, sociologists believed that the biggest problem society would face in the future would be too much leisure time. Cybernetics and technology would transform our lives, and we would not know what to do with all of the time on our hands.
"I was looking forward to it," said de Graaf, with a smile. "It was a problem I thought I could deal with."
It was a problem that never materialized, and in the early '90s de Graaf began to notice a trend. "Everyone around me was frantic," he explained.
The question "How are you?" was met with "Busy" instead of "Fine," and when colleagues tried to make lunch dates, they flipped a month ahead in their calendars. Technology had advanced, but instead of bringing peace of mind, the working world seemed wackier than ever.
United States statistics support his observations.
The average middle-income family now works four months more in total hours than they did in 1979 (per economists Barry Bluestone and Stephen Rose). Twenty-six percent of Americans take no vacation at all (Boston College survey), and 62 percent of U.S. workers report being "stressed out" from overwork (Harris Interactive survey).
"We have gotten way out of balance," said a somber de Graaf. "I don't think that people want to be frantic and stressed out. People may want to have a lively life, but they don't want to be frantic like we have become."
De Graaf, a filmmaker for 28 years, has spent much of his career looking at the values of American culture and the results that they produce. In his "Affluenza" series he tackled consumerism and people's desperate need for those "precious" things. His films have showcased simple living, sustainable gardens and renowned environmentalists like David Brower. Take Back Your Time was the natural next step for a man who has committed his life's work to community, kindness and the trees.
"My focus now is on time," explained de Graaf, "because I think that it is being ignored."
Take Back Your Time works to raise awareness about time deprivation and how it threatens families, health, community involvement and the environment. Time-pressed individuals are more likely to consume more throwaway items and less likely to recycle.
On Oct. 24, 2003, the first official Take Back Your Time Day took place across the U.S. and Canada. TBYT also worked to pass the Paid Family Leave Act in Washington state.
Last week, March 15, the state Senate approved Bill 5069, Family Leave Insurance Account, a landmark piece of legislation that would give employees up to five weeks of paid family medical leave if enacted into law.
In 1993, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act, authorizing workers to take a total of 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for birth, adoption or serious illness. The Family Leave Insurance Account would expand that to include up to five weeks of paid leave at the rate of $250 a week. The legislation now moves to the House of Representatives for further con-sideration.
One hundred sixty-three of 168 nations in the world guarantee paid family leave to all workers for the birth of a child, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The United States is one of the five countries that do not.
"We are told all of the time in the United States, 'Oh, you are the best and everyone would rather live here,'" said de Graaf. "This is not a bad country to live in, but given our wealth and levels of education, we could do so much better in terms of our social health."
De Graaf believes that the frantic work and imbalance within the United States is due to lack of communication. As a country, he said, we never had a dialogue about what constitutes a good life. Progress in America has always been about the GNP - did our economy grow?
"I don't want to be seen as anti-American," de Graaf clarified. "That is missing the point."
The real point, he said, is that the United States can do better. The government has a very important role to play, and economic progress does not equal happiness.
"I believe that we have a choice to make in this country," said de Graaf. "As science and technology improve, we can take the gains in two ways: produce more stuff, or produce the same amount in less time and take leisure time."
Thus far, American culture has made the first choice, and Europeans have made the second. Americans work up to 12 weeks more in total hours per year than Europeans.
"If you judge your society by how much you produce per capita, then we win," said de Graaf. "But is that the measure of a good life?"
According to the National Research Opinion Center, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves happy has plateaued since the 1950s. We live in bigger houses, drive faster cars, work longer hours and own more stuff, yet sense of well-being has not increased.
"Happiness is other people," stated de Graaf, who finds pleasure in helping to coach his 11-year-old son's Little League team on Queen Anne. "It is a life rich in friends, strong family relationships, active community participation and work that contributes to the common good. It is close connection to the natural world and good health."
It is a life in which time is balanced between work and play.
De Graaf and Take Back Your Time hope to call attention to time poverty and, following in the footsteps of Europe, pass legislation that gives Americans more choices in the time they put into their work.
"We have not found very efficient ways to meet our fundamental needs," de Graaf concluded. "I think that many other countries do a better job than we do. It is not just the red wine that gives Europeans fewer heart attacks. The most important thing for your health is a good friend."
It is no coincidence that red wine takes time to sip, and good friendships only deepen and grow with time. It is the antidote to a broken heart and the vehicle that moves us from here to there. Time is relentless, and it is a component of our lives that deserves a more thoughtful look.
How do you treat the time in your life?
Take Back Your Time's six-point "Time to Care" public policy initiative includes:
Guarantee paid childbirth leave for all parents. Today, only 40 percent of Americans are able to take advantage of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
Guarantee at least one week of paid sick leave for all workers.
Guarantee at least three weeks of paid annual vacation leave for all workers.
Place a limit on the amount of compulsory overtime work that an employer can impose, with the goal being to give employees the right to accept or refuse overtime work.
Make it easier for Americans to choose part-time work by enacting hourly wage parity and protection of promotions and pro-rated benefits for part-time workers.
Make Election Day a holiday, with the understanding that Americans need time for civic and political participation.
For more information visit www.timeday.org and check out the book "Take Back Your Time: The Official Handbook of the National Movement," edited by John de Graaf. [[In-content Ad]]