Needless to say, the three-hour work shift hasn’t arrived, even if Keynes’s predicted “age of abundance” has. It’s true that many of us still don’t have enough free hours after we’re done clocking in and out of the office. But of all of our problems with leisure, the worst may be that our leisure, too, has become work.
Leisure is time during which we’re not required to labor, hours we spend to partake in ways of life that we choose. If our labor is about results, the goal in leisure is leisure itself.
But this goal is surprisingly elusive. We can be incredibly unfree about our free time. Part of this is a nagging sense that we should be using our non-working hours productively, a feeling that we need to get the most out of time even when we’re not working.
Think for a minute about the urban book club. We oblige ourselves to read books that we would have never picked, on timelines not our own, in order to discuss our findings with people we wouldn’t always choose for ourselves. It’s no surprise that our leisure time increasingly feels like work we’re failing at.
It’s also worth noting that our free time has become hyper-structured at the same time that our labor is becoming more flexible. Independent contractors and freelancers (journalists, yes, but also Uber drivers) erode our traditional ideas of what it means to work for wages. Some Silicon Valley companies, famously Facebook and Google, bring the appearance of leisure to the workplace. In-office music rooms face massage parlors. Kitchens that you find in some offices are better stocked than your own.
This would have troubled Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, who worried that our time off would become a “mere appendage of work.” We’ve allowed our offices to resemble our homes, or in some cases, for our homes to become our offices. But a culture that valorizes workplace nap-pods and snack kitchens too easily misses an important point: Recharging ourselves so that we’re able to work harder or longer isn’t the same as actually having leisure time.
“Are there any particular areas that you’d like to work on?” yoga teachers inquire. “What can we focus on today?” What is most interesting about these comments is not what follows — tight shoulders, headaches and lower back issues (a litany of physical complaints often stemming from our work) — but the presumption built into such questions. We come to yoga to sort ourselves out, to get ourselves back to normal function, all so that we can return to being our contented laboring selves.
And when we can take breaks without ever stepping outside, it becomes easier to stay on the job longer, pouring more of our attention and energy into our work, and simultaneously, the market system. We get the appearance of leisure without really having it.
If over-structured free time and on-the-job “rest” can easily become prolongations of our workday, there is another competing impulse: We want to make our free time an oasis from our work lives. So, we look for activities that are as unlike our labor as possible. But even these won’t hold back labor’s colonizing impulses.
We watch TV, we check emails, we sunbathe. Requiring little exertion, these are practically non-activity activities. If work is associated with an initial amount of drudgery for a later benefit, we redefine leisure to mean an absence of such effort. Watching undemanding TV shows or listening to mindless music is supposed to be what makes such activities leisurely.
But idle relaxation hardly counts as leisure. The hours we sit in front of the TV are much like our 15-minute breaks on the job: Both are meant to help us rebound for the next set of office tasks. Neither counts as leisure, since the aim of these tasks is helping us labor better.
This culture of constant work might make real leisure — activities pursued for their own sake — hard to come by. The difficulty, though, doesn’t erode the important difference between true leisure on the one hand and an overreach of work on the other. If leisure is necessary for a good life, we’ll have to preserve it without chaining ourselves to its opposite: labor.