Limits to the ‘Leisure Society

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The vision of a future in which people lead lives of leisure has been an enduring one. Homeric legend, for example, featured the Lotus Eaters, living in luxurious idleness. The basis of the Leisure Dream today is, of course, automation, which, apparently, will free people to engage in all kinds of cultural, sporting and general recreational activities. Some readers may remember a TV cartoon series called The Jetsons, featuring a family whose hardest physical labour was occasionally to push a button, both in the brief time they spent at work and during the much longer periods back in the home, where all kinds of tedious tasks like cooking and cleaning had been automated as well.

In reality, the Age of Leisure always seems to be just out of reach. Today’s Industrial Revolution has seen the dawning of a plethora of insecure, mind- numbing and low paid jobs, mainly in the service sector. It is coupled to a general intensification of work duties across many economic sectors. Furthermore, those in formal employment increasingly spend a large part of their day not engaged in any kind of work at all but sit there fuming, stuck in commuter traffic jams. Those with lots of time on their hands are usually the unemployed, amongst whom miserly welfare benefits severely restrict opportunities, recreational and otherwise. As critics such as Staffan Linder have pointed out. even the super-rich seem to lead harried lives compared to their predecessors of, say, two centuries ago.

From Labour via Leisure to Liberation

Be it a distant dream or an about-to-be-born reality, many people are convinced that a leisure-oriented society would represent real progress. It is widely assumed that a new Age of Leisure will mean more personal happiness, social well-being and environmental sustainability than the Age of Labour and the old Smokestack Economy, with its attendant grime and hard graft. The positive view of the liberating effects of the Leisure transition is reflected in the terminology its enthusiasts use. The scientist Meredith Thring, for example, wrote of a new “Creative Society” while Walter and Dorothy Schwartz envisaged it as one in which folk engage in “Artwork”. The French writer Andre Gorz meanwhile theorised about a revolutionary transformation in how we use our time in his revealingly entitled Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work. Ordinary people might not use the same words but many seem to share such sentiments. When workplaces have been shut down, many employees have voted with their feet, taking the redundancy money and hurrying out of the factory and office door, instead of fighting against the closure. It is also common to find other employees preferring an increase in free time to a rise in wages. Trade Unions have long demanded cuts in working hours, partly to create more jobs for the unemployed but also partly to give their members a better quality of life. Even governments and some employers are now making noise about imperfections in the ‘work-life balance’.

Today’s demands for more leisure reflect, to a large extent, a deep desire simply to escape from the daily grind. It is reflected in the much repeated dictum that if ‘work’ were such a good thing, the Rich would have kept it all to themselves. [The toffee-nosed crowds seen at sporting events held on workdays like Royal Ascot suggests that the Rich are doing just that] Despite the fact that, compared to their great grandparents, workers in the richer countries receive longer paid holidays, retire earlier in life and work fewer hours in toto, many people feel that life is slipping away as one work day follows another. The proverb “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” also captures such thoughts.