It’s a gorgeous spring afternoon in Montreal and I’m sitting on my back balcony, sipping a beer and watching the alley life below. A long-haired cyclist passes by on a big city bicycle; a sneaky-eyed black cat darts up the stairs into the apartment next door. Little kids kick around a soccer ball. It’s an enviable position, sitting around like this on a weekday, but student life affords such luxuries. Eventually, this will all come to an end. I’ll have to grow some whiskers and scurry into the proverbial rat race like everyone else.
Not necessarily, and certainly not if I can help it. I want to work less and enjoy life more—and I’m not alone. There’s a whole movement afoot with the same goal in mind. A Slow movement that, ironically enough, is quickly working its way into mainstream thought. Last year, a London-based journalist named Carl Honoré explored the philosophy in his book In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. Examining the push to take it easy, from the Italian-born Slow Food and Slow Cities movements to the increasing acceptance of alternative health practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Honoré insists that a slower way of life is a better way of life for anyone determined enough to hit the brakes.
It helps to define what exactly is meant by the word “slow.” Honoré sums it up in his introduction: “Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.” He continues: “The Slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word: balance. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto—the right speed.”
Tempo giusto is nice-sounding, kind of sultry, but so what? Why slow down? What’s the advantage to you, me and everyone else in the world? In a word, sustainability: economic, social and environmental. Working too much gives you stress and sucks away the time you can spend doing the things you love. Anybody who has ever had a workaholic parent or partner knows what pain that can cause. There are broader implications too. Endless industrial growth, fuelled by ever-increasing workloads, wreaks ecological and social havoc around the world. Yet our whole society is geared toward working harder and faster. The evidence is everywhere. Earlier this year, the Globe and Mail ran a cloyingly upbeat story on an elite class of overachievers who drag themselves out of bed in the middle of the night to get a jump start on their workday. Every year, Canada’s average workweek grows longer; up to a third of people in some cities, such as Edmonton, work more than fifty hours a week.
For a Montrealer like myself, that’s a scary number. Only 7 percent of us work that much, and there’s a reason for that: most of us really, really don’t want to. It’s an attitude that has its share of devotees. In 2003, while I was working on a newspaper story about talented English-Canadians moving here after decades of brain drain, many of the people I interviewed pointed to Montreal’s relaxed lifestyle as one of its biggest draws. Their feelings were reflected two years ago by a study that found that Montrealers spend an average of eight hours per week sitting on their 1.2 million apartment balconies – that’s eight hours to read, watch the street, to relax and let your mind wander.
It’s the kind of thing that would make the Work Less Party very happy. Last May, during British Columbia’s provincial election campaign, I stumbled across a newspaper article that described how the fringe party was livening up an otherwise uneventful month. “Workers of the World—Relax!” is the Work Less Party’s rallying cry, which only hints at the cheekiness of the events it has organized: road-hockey tournaments on major streets, “sleep-ins” at the provincial legislature (where, incredibly, it’s illegal to take a nap) and a downtown race in which contestants dressed up as rats navigate a nightmarish corporate labyrinth, only to die when retirement is in sight.
I was intrigued, so I rang up Conrad Schmidt, the party’s founder. For years, he tells me, “I was working the crazy lifestyle. Then I decided to slow down. I switched to a four day workweek and found myself able to do all sorts of things like volunteering. So I decided to start a political party.” The party’s other candidates offer similar testimonials: one, an accountant, negotiated a thirty-two hour, four-day workweek with her employer. She now devotes her extra free time to organizing a community garden, sewing her own clothes, singing in community choirs and choreographing theatrical pieces for the Work Less Party. Another volunteers for a variety of community organizations, is currently conducting an environmental audit of a Vancouver college and sits on the grant review board for the environment fund of Mountain Equipment Coop, an outdoor gear co-operative with locations across Canada.
The Work Less people sound like quite the bunch of ambitious overachievers, but there’s nothing strange about that. The Slow Movement isn’t about slacking off, it’s about doing things smarter and more efficiently. One of the most effective ways of accomplishing this is by reducing your workload. Mary Dean Lee, professor of management at McGill University, recently completed a six-year, North America-wide study on professionals who negotiated reduced workweeks with their employers. Her research team found that the subjects gained, on average, an extra seventeen hours of free time per week without sacrificing much of their career success. Over half of the people studied earned promotions or switched to better jobs at other companies over the six years. The best thing about reducing your workload, Lee explained to me, in the faintest of Southern drawls, is that you get to choose what to do with your extra hours. What would you do with seventeen extra hours?
The answer for many is to get involved in the community—and there’s no one more involved than Owen Rose, a Montreal interning architect who is one of the founding members of Mont-Royal Avenue Verte, a group dedicated to transforming the main street of the Plateau, one of Montreal’s trendiest areas, into a car-free haven for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. Rose sat down with me one afternoon in his airy Plateau office. “[Avenue Verte] fits right into the Slow movement,” he began. “Our guiding philosophy is really quality of life, urban ecology and local participative democracy. When you empower people through democracy, they then start to get involved in [their community].” Public reaction to Avenue Verte has been overwhelmingly positive, with tens of thousands of Montrealers turning out to sign a petition demanding a public hearing on making the Plateau more ped-friendly.
All of Avenue Verte’s members are volunteers, driven to action by concern for their neighbourhood. It would be hard to see such local activism emerge in a hastily-built bedroom community whose residents spend most of their time at work or in their cars. What makes the Plateau worth fighting for are some of the very same things Honoré promotes in his book: environmentally friendly living (nearly a quarter of Plateau residents walk to work, and most of the rest take public transit), neighbourhood interaction (the Plateau has more street festivals than any other part of Montreal) and a quality built space (human-scaled streets, squares and parks that encourage street life are hallmarks of the neighbourhood). It’s certainly busier and more fast-paced than your average suburb, but in many ways it is a richer, more intimate environment.
Still, all things considered, is being Slow really practical? Daydreaming on your balcony is one thing, but actually trying to lead a Slow life, build Slow places and nurture Slow institutions is another. Carl Honoré is calling for nothing less than a massive overhaul of modern industrial society, but there are signs that things aren’t going the way he would want. In the nineteen-nineties, a number of European countries capped the national workweek at thirty-five hours in order to boost productivity, create more jobs and increase the leisure time of its citizens. Last winter, though, the French government, under pressure from business groups, announced its plan to increase the workweek’s maximum possible length. Nevertheless, most of the French public still supports the short workweek, still enshrined in many workers’ contracts. Besides, some of the world’s most work-obsessed countries, such as South Korea, are seeing the length of their average workweek decline without any government intervention.
Being Slow, when you really get down to the bare bones of it, can only be achieved through personal effort. Small steps are important, and if that means cutting your working hours to fifty per week from the eighty that are the norm in your profession—as one of Mary Dean Lee’s subjects did—so be it. Increasingly, it seems that slowing down is essential. Pollution, poor health, suburban sprawl: these seemingly disparate issues can all be blamed on the unrelenting, ever-faster treadmill we’ve created for ourselves. “Persuading people of the merits of slowing down is only the beginning,” concludes Carl Honoré in In Praise of Slow. “Decelerating will be a struggle until we rewrite the rules that govern almost every sphere of life—the economy, the workplace, urban design, education, medicine.”
Sitting on my balcony, legs propped up on the railing, Honoré makes perfect sense to me. Maybe that’s just the product of a naive young mind. But I’m optimistic there will be many more sunny afternoons spent on this very balcony.