Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Your money or your life?

Every now and then, I buy a bit more of my life back from the demands of werk. Trouble is, the more they pay me, the more expensive buying back my own time becomes. Still, I reckon it's worth it.

Why put your life on hold on the gamble that you'll live long enough to reach retirement, with your health and marbles intact enough to enjoy it and do all that werk leaves no time for -- and that the value of your pension, and the state of civilisation will both hold up so you get to collect what's due to you? Retirement as life deferred, in the same way that pension is salary deferred. Am I an optimist for gambling that I'll get by all right without maximising income and pension now -- or a pessimist who doesn't trust the future to make up for losing the present? A bit of both, of course.

Back when I was involved with New Economics Foundation, I was impressed by James Robertson's 'Future Work' and 'Future Wealth'. The former book particularly argued that a sustainable society must better recognise and balance the 'real economy' and real value of actual goods and services, and the massive amount of unpaid useful activity that sustains communities and the human spirit, against the 'money economy', since money is a very flawed measure of real value. Having bought the argument, I put my money where my mouth was, and 'bought' back a couple of days a week of my 'own time' -- getting a life, rather than just having a job.

I'm now on my third spell of part-time. First time up, in the 1980s, I was working for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika pulled the rug from under the Cold War; as fear that the world was about to be blown into radioactive smithereens subsided, so did the membership fees and donations that fuelled CND, So I offered to cut my working days, with the aim of Writing Immortal Prose on Fridays -- but usually just managed to catch up with household stuff, recover from feeling shattered by the four preceding days of werk -- recover bounce and energy on Saturday when JN, my other half just wanted to lie about recovering from being shattered. In the mid-1990s, I chucked a demanding berth in transport journalism with the idea of building up freelancing -- but JN, alarmed at becoming sole support for our brand new mortgage, demanded I look for at least a part-time proper job. This time I took Monday and Tuesday as my 'own days', so JN & I could loll about shattered together Saturday mornings, gently recover through the weekend, then I could carry on with the energy and purpose built up before re-entering the world of werk for a manageable three-day week. That is, I reckon, about the ideal work-life balance. I wanted to use my own time for writing stuff, for putting into practice some of the community, environment and sustainability prescriptions that, for werk, I advocated -- which ended up co-chairing Haringey Agenda 21 community side, chairing Permaculture Association Britain, and a spell as chair of New Economics Foundation. I realised that a lot of the ooh-pretty stuff I coveted I'd rather have the fun of making myself than buy from a shop. I wanted do gardening... I went back to full-time werk when the community involvement grew into voracious demands for all my 'own' time -- if other people were going expect me to do what they wanted, rather than what I enjoyed offering, then I might as well get paid for it.

Now, I have Mondays as my 'own day' -- and am inquiring about re-claiming another day for myself. This time round, I just aim to fit in a bit of life. In practice, that means swimming in the local pool to keep fit, pottering in garden and allotment, doing a bit of stuff around the house, and maybe heading out to shops or a bit of culture. Last year, we 'greened' the house -- blog on that to come. Community stuff creeps in, so far just around the edges. I resist turning on the computer with its engulfing tide of emails.

Money has its power over us only to the extent that we accept it in preference to other values. Those of us who have 'enough' money -- average (median/mode) income or above are in a position to exercise choice. We can of course maximise the money we rake in, then spend or save it to buy stuff we want. Or we can focus on stuff that money can't buy -- quality of life, quality time.

There's a story of a go-getting millionaire businessman who walks out along the (Mediterrean/Caribbean...) beach from his 5-star hotel, and trips over a local stretched out asleep beneath the palm trees on the sand. "Why aren't you out working?" snaps the irritated millionaire. "You people have no spirit of enterprise. If you just got off your ass and started fishing, you could sell the fish to this flash hotel. If you worked hard, you could buy a boat and catch more fish, and make enough money to run a fleet of boats."
"And what, senor, should I do then with all that money?"
"Why, you could sell your fleet and you'd have enough to retire to somewhere like here and live a life of leisure enjoying the beach and the sun..."
And the local yokel tipped his hat back over his face and went back to sleep in the sun...

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