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Do we really want a shorter work week? Add to ...

Bruce O’Hara, an often lonely campaigner for shorter work weeks in Canada, has finally found the balance he has been seeking for others, thanks to voluntary simplicity, a jolt, and Ecuador.

I’d interviewed the Courtenay, B.C.-based consultant and writer in the 1990s on the need for saner working hours, and even invited him to contribute an essay to Memos To The Prime Minister, a 2004 book I edited with policy propositions for government amongst which his was one of the most challenging. We all want balance. But we all want the same income as we have today (or, preferably, more). Mention a shorter work week, and fear sets in for individuals over loss of income and for businesses and government over loss of productivity or having to pay more in salaries for fewer work hours.

When I reached out to him again recently, to my surprise I found him in Ecuador. “We can live on $1,200 dollars a month here, which means we can both work part time and have lots of time with the kids, a different way to achieve balance, I suppose,” he wrote back. In fact, his story was even more interesting than that.

Almost 20 years ago, he read a book on voluntary simplicity and with his then-partner decided to follow the program it set out, saving half their income. At the age of 50, with enough saved to live frugally on their investments, he began to consider retirement, but realized he didn’t know what he would do. So he started researching the second half of life, and in October, 2004 produced a book, Enough Already: Breaking Free in the Second Half of Life, partly for himself and partly for his generation of baby boomers.

“I found out that the senior population is a very diverse group. Roughly one third of seniors will report being happier than they have ever been at any time in their lives. Roughly one third has a so-so experience in their ‘Golden Years,’ and the remaining third is downright miserable,” he says, noting that seniors have very high rates of both suicide and depression, but it’s all because of that third group of unhappy seniors.

He was intrigued that the happy third and the unhappy third were very different in their attitudes and behaviours. The unhappy third tended to be very traditional in their ideas of retirement: Being a senior meant you were free to do nothing, watch lots of TV, and could take life easy. The happy third saw being a senior also as a time of freedom, but a time of “freedom for” rather than “freedom from.” They would take on new challenges, returning to university, volunteering in Africa, serving Meals on Wheels to other seniors, or learning to be extremely good on a musical instrument that previously they couldn’t even play. They recognized it’s much easier to feel happy with yourself if you feel competent, useful, and connected to other people. He found those attitudes didn’t just enrich their lives, but lengthened them as well. Evidence shows that happy seniors not only live longer, but have a much longer “healthspan” – years of healthy life.

“People whose midlife years were totally dominated by work were often the ones who most longed to retire, and yet, paradoxically, the people who were most lost and unhappy in retirement. When work had become a person’s whole life, there was nothing left when work disappeared. People who had had a number of years of part-time work during their mid-life years, had had time to begin constructing new lives for themselves, finding new passions, new challenges, and new purposes for themselves,” he observes.

In the book, he mentioned the concept he called “jolts” – some big event that shakes you from your current life course. Shortly afterwards, he faced his own earthquake: His brother Ron, who lived in Ontario but had always talked of joining him in British Columbia, developed pancreatic cancer. He went to nurse his brother, who died in October, 2005, never fulfilling that dream.

That jolted Mr. O’Hara into wondering what dreams he should be fulfilling in the second half of his life. “I had always wanted to teach English in China. It was a romantic idea,” he notes. He moved to China and taught there for six months, but realized at 54 he would never learn Chinese. Still, he sensed that he could live on his savings in some foreign countries and have an adventure, so he settled on Ecuador, where he met Catalina, a native of that country, and married. He had not had children in his previous relationships and assumed he would never be a father but unexpectedly she became pregnant with Danny, now four and a half, and then more deliberately they had Juan Diego, now one-and-a-half.

His second half of life now involves caring for his children much of the week, while his wife works a few days a week and he teaches English part time, either as a volunteer or for payment, depending on the varying status of his visa. They live in a four bedroom, four bathroom house with a sauna and a terrace in a small village of 4,000 people, Vilcabamba, which has a big expatriate community. It has perpetual spring and money goes a long way compared to Canada (a 20-ounce beer is 80 cents and a litre of rum is $6). “I have in my life what I wanted for others. I work part-time, live well, and have time to be with my kids, to be an active Dad,” he says.

But he’s also realistic: The schools are not great in the country, and they’ll have to come to Canada in a year or so for the children’s education. Perhaps with that in mind, he surveys the bleak situation for work hours back home.

He attributes the recession to the bubbles in the real estate and financial markets, “froth papered over as the economy didn’t work.” If everyone is working 40 hours a week, he says, we can produce way more than we can sell, which leads to recession and high employment and high welfare rolls. To his mind, the solution is to share the work more equitably, with sensible working hours. He imagines us divided into two shifts, working three days one week and four days the next, while our factories and schools run more efficiently, seven days a week, and families line up their schedules so they can be home together more frequently and with more time for themselves.

But he doesn’t see any interest in cutting back, from government, business, or individuals. We talk balance, but his solution is viewed as delusional by too many people. “I miss the fight for shorter work hours. It was a good fight. But it’s not on the horizon,” he admits.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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