When I first quit my job and came home, I took as my mantra Bob Dylan’s Tough Mama:
The world of illusion is at my door
I ain’t a-haulin’ any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore
The prison walls are crumblin’, there is no end in sight
I’ve gained some recognition but I lost my appetite
Meet me at the border late tonight” (1).
It was a triumphant anthem for me. I had done it – taken the risk – left the cubicle and worker’s crest behind. I had nothing to look forward to but the world of my own making. No sacrifice required except to love. I felt proud: this middle class American girl had figured it out. Time is more valuable than money: illusion slayed!
It felt like a long time coming. I grew up being taught that I could be anyone I wanted to be, which meant “enter any work place.” As a girl child in the culture, I was reminded often that this freedom hadn’t been available to my grandmother. “She could be a teacher or a nurse, that’s it,” my mother would say. So I did what I was told. Without knowing it was what I was doing, I groomed myself for the workforce: got good grades in high school, took birth control and went to college. After entering the workforce, I continued to put employment first as I married, kept working, got an MA while working, had a kid, kept working.
My parents did teach me that there was more to life than money. They certainly nurtured more than my worker gene and loved me for me. And once on my own, there was definitely more to my life than the hours spent on the clock, but somehow, still, the story that I lived was that my value was equivalent to the price that my time could fetch in the marketplace.
Sounds almost obscene as I see it written now so plain! But this is the exchange the vast majority of us make every day. When we punch that time clock we are agreeing in many ways to do what a prostitute does: give our bodies and energy for a certain period of time in exchange for a certain sum of money.
I have no problem with this exchange itself. I have no problem with working. I simply wish that growing up I’d been able to enter into it with all of the facts. For in truth, there’s nothing simple about exchanging time for money. There’s too much at stake and the parties are too mismatched.
In economics, they use the idea of opportunity costs to capture the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. I like this way of reckoning the path of my choices through life. It gives value to more than monetary trade-offs. It says I get to decide what for me constitutes gain. It says I am more than the sum of my logged hours. It suggests there is something important about being available to potential.
But I could never have entered into a true opportunity cost analysis before leaving the workforce because I didn’t have any data beyond that gathered in the life I’d lived. The alternative story line simply didn’t exist in the America I grew up in. It wasn’t even available to me in the lives of others I knew. In the America I was raised in adults entered the workplace, 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. In that America, when I met people at parties, they asked not “Who are you?” but rather, “What do you do?”
Once I quit my job and came home, I began to discover all of those potential gains I’d missed out on by following the path more followed. I began to learn about real wealth, which unlike money has intrinsic value. Riches like learning to grow our own organic food and to cook from scratch. Instead of the fleeting ability to purchase fast food, I now possess the real wealth of being able to feed my family.
David Korten does a beautiful job of explaining this concept in The Illusion of Money, written for commondreams.org: “Examples include fertile land, healthful food, knowledge, productive labor, pure water and clean air, labor, and physical infrastructure,” he says. “The most important forms of real wealth are beyond price and are unavailable for market purchase. These include healthy, happy children, loving families, caring communities, a beautiful, healthy, natural environment” (2).
I’d add Time. For Time is the practical framework against which we measure the work of our days – and it’s the reality-come-knocking that should be in every opportunity cost analysis. In the end, it’s the only real currency any of us holds and too long has it been undervalued in our culture.
What is the opportunity cost of a cultural storyline that posits monetary and material wealth over real wealth?
I don’t know how to answer that for you. In my life, I’m only now beginning to explore the ramifications. And in terms of the opportunity cost for our country? For us as humans? I think we still are only glimpsing new lands in brief snatches of clarity, as though the old illusions are a constantly swirling sea fog that never fully lifts. But I’d suggest that one concrete step to take is to try an alternative — whatever that may be or look like for you, however big or small. At a minimum, I can guarantee that potential awaits.
(1) via Tough Mama | Bob Dylan