The distinction between work and leisure is as old as human civilization, and there have always been those who suggested that the former is merely a precondition for the latter. Aristotle, for example, thought that happiness depended on leisure, which he defined as activity that was undertaken purely for its own sake rather than as a means to something else.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the distinction between work and leisure has taken on a particularly stark form, because what most of us experience as “work” is the historically specific institution of wage labor: time that we spend obeying somebody else’s orders in exchange for money.
Throughout the history of capitalism, workers have demanded a reduction in working hours to leave more time for leisure, while employers have pushed for the opposite. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, workers fought for and won the 10-hour day and then the eight-hour day. Since then, however, progress toward shorter hours has stalled. It will take political organizing and legislative reforms to expand and enrich the time available to us outside of work.
By the 1930s, the progressive reduction of working time had become accepted as a fact of life, and commentators predicted a life of increased leisure time for the masses. Economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay contemplating the social implications of this trend, titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In it, he took declining work hours for granted and moved on to what, for him, were deeper existential questions: What would we do with our free time? How would we find sources of meaning and purpose?
But after the Great Depression, something odd happened: The trend toward shorter hours stopped. Productivity kept on increasing, but workers no longer received a dividend in the form of leisure time. The labor movement found that employers were more willing to grant higher wages than shorter hours, at least so long as worker productivity kept rapidly increasing, and competition with the Soviet Union made shorter hours a harder sell. Eventually, workers stopped sharing in productivity growth through wage increases as well: Since the 1970s, productivity has continued to rise, but wages have been stagnant. The length of the full-time workweek has remained steady at 40 or so hours since the 1950s, despite the fact that women, who now make up 47 percent of the workforce, additionally dedicate significant discretionary time to what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild called the “second shift” in the home.
What would it take to recover our leisure time? As noted above, it was organized labor that led the fight for shorter hours and more vacation time to begin with. It’s no coincidence that in European countries with stronger unions, workers enjoy guaranteed vacations, even if they tend to work about as many hours as Americans when they are on the job. Union membership is down to around 11 percent in the United States, and it’s difficult to ask your boss for shorter hours when you can easily be fired and replaced by someone more inclined to workaholism.
But even without a revival of unions, there are legislative remedies. Lowering the threshold for overtime pay and extending it to cover more workers would diminish the incentive to extract maximum hours from each worker. Higher minimum wages would mean that people wouldn’t need to work so much just to get by. More radically, some have proposed a “universal basic income”: a guaranteed payment to all adults that would make it possible to get by without working, at least for short periods.
Creating more leisure time would be good for all of us, good for society, even good for the environment. But to avoid experiencing free time as boring and meaningless, people need access to the tools to use their leisure “wisely and agreeably and well,” in Keynes’ terms. To address this need, we will also have to rethink our conception of public education.
Today, education is typically debated in terms of standardized testing and job preparation. But education also allows people to explore their interests and develop their talents, whether that be in computer programming and car repair or music and art. As teacher and writer Megan Erickson argued in her recent book “Class War,” we need a vision of education that’s about more than rote learning and job training. We need schools in which students don’t learn just in order to do well on tests and behave as model employees, but are guided by teachers who help them develop their skills and their creativity for their own sake, so that they can fully enjoy leisure in Aristotle’s sense.
The United States is a richer society than any that has ever existed. It’s possible for us to take much more of those riches in the form of time for the masses, rather than stuff for the 1 percent. But to do that, we need to develop both the power to demand more freedom from work and the capacity to make the fullest use of our spare hours.