As Europe recovered from World War II, philosopher Josef Pieper wondered about leisure. “A time like the present,” he admitted, “seems at all times not to be a time to talk about leisure. We are engaged in rebuilding a house, and our hands are full. But such paybacks, according to Pieper, were also an opportunity for companies to reconsider their collective goals – the type of home they wanted to build together.
Pieper was not the only one to get up for leisure in difficult times. Shortly after the onset of the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes, who lost almost everything in the crash of 1929, suggested that people “devote our extra energies to non-economic purposes.” He envisioned a 15-hour work week for his grandchildren’s generation and envisioned a time when people might “prefer the good over the useful.”
Much of the world is near the end of another global calamity. And again, we have the opportunity to rethink the type of house we want to live in.
In recent months, a series of pundits and business columnists have called for a four-day work week, paid parental leave and stricter limits on mandatory overtime. Many of these thinkers rationalize the proposals to give back our time by promising that they will contribute to global prosperity. A well-rested workforce, the argument goes, is more productive, and that’s a “bonus for the bosses.” Iceland recently concluded a high-profile five-year experiment in which 2,500 workers from over 100 different companies cut their working hours from 40 to 35 or 36 hours per week. Earlier this year, the Spanish government embarked on a similar experiment, reducing work to 32 hours per week. In 2019, Microsoft Japan also tried a shorter work week. Companies reported improvements in efficiency and overall productivity; in the case of Microsoft, productivity increased by 40%.
These experiences and the well-intentioned arguments behind them illustrate a delicate paradox: leisure is useful– but only insofar as there is leisure. Once this time is seen as a way to improve employee morale and increase employee growth, leisure loses the very quality that makes it so powerful. As Pieper wrote, “Leisure is not there for work.” Leisure is doing things for themselves, to pursue what we want. We must fight the urge to reduce it to a productivity hack.
This proposition is more difficult than it sounds because free time turns out to be extremely fruitful. Pieper and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote the essay “Praise of Idleness” in 1932, disagreed on much – one was a Catholic philosopher, the other an atheist – but they agreed that free time fuels human creativity and innovation. Russell argued that he “has contributed to almost all of what we call civilization. She cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; he wrote the books, invented the philosophies and refined the social relations. Pieper went so far as to attribute something sublime to leisure. Being at leisure was, in his words, “both a human and a superhuman condition.”
Many of us know it for ourselves: when we are hiking in nature, in the shower, or just dreaming, flashes of inspiration come like nowhere. Neuroscientists refer to the “incubation period” that often precedes enlightenment as an absence of task-related thinking. Cognitive psychologists have shown that leisure lends itself to the type of “intrinsic motivation” that is particularly effective for learning.
The private sector sees the value of this time, which is why it is so determined to blur the line between work and non-work. Management experts rave about how “daydreaming at work can fuel creativity”. Forward-thinking companies have responded with office hammocks and foosball tables and happy hours. With nearly half of the American workforce now engaged in some form of intellectual labor, the ability to harness the creative potential of leisure has gained real economic value.
As our businesses and policymakers recognize the value of recreation, employees decided they didn’t need it. As countries got richer in the mid-1900s, average hours of work declined and leisure increased. Then, around 1985, the trend was reversed: leisure hours began to decline, affecting the wealthiest people in rich countries, the very people who made up what was once called the “leisure class”. The same pattern is now found in emerging economies. The richest and most educated are working more than 20 years ago. Income inequality has increased, but as economist Robert H. Frank observes, “leisure inequality” “grows like a mirror image, low incomes gain leisure and high incomes lose” .
Shortly before the pandemic, a study conducted jointly by Oxford Economics and Ipsos found that in 2018, more than half of Americans had not used all of their vacation days. In total, Americans had not used 768 million days of paid vacation. This is a 9% increase in missed vacations over the previous year.
Among the handful of studies that examine the quality of our free time by examining diaries, the results are even more concerning. ‘Pure leisure’, which social scientists define as ‘leisure time that is not’ contaminated ‘by other non-leisure activities,’ has fallen across the board, affecting all levels of life. income and education.
Technology usually gets most of the blame. But despite all the attention to smartphones as the culprit, a more fundamental factor is at play. We aspire to ‘make the most’ of our free time, so we consistently devote our evenings, weekends and vacations to our own. own advancement. The precariousness of the labor market and the growth of the odd-job economy have reinforced these incentives. Pure leisure now looks like pure indulgence.
How did people come to view leisure as a means to an end? Reflecting the paradoxical quality of leisure, calls for its expansion tend to come first from utopians who reflect on human dignity, before being adopted by stubborn pragmatists who examine the input-output tables. What social reformer Robert Owen presented in 1810 as a radical notion, industrialist Henry Ford defended a century later as good business. In 1926, Ford, which had already reduced the number of daily working hours in its factories from 10 to eight, also shortened the work week from six to five days.
In an interview following his factory reforms, he explained: “It is high time to get rid of the idea that workers’ leisure is either ‘wasted time’ or a class privilege. On the basis of such solemn words, one could almost take him for an advocate of the good life. Ford was quick to rectify this impression: “Of course,” he continued, “there is a humanitarian side to the shorter day and the shorter week, but lingering on that side is likely to get into trouble, because then leisure can be put before work instead of after work – where it belongs. Ford found that with their extra day off, its employees were “so fresh and enthusiastic that they are able to put their minds as well as their hands in their work.” Better yet, they used their free time to buy more things, which Ford said would increase aggregate demand, fueling growth. Leisure has become a means for a means.
This handover from utopians to pragmatists is a regular phenomenon. Consider the strange fortune that has befallen sleep, that primordial cousin of leisure. The number of hours of sleep for the average North American has dropped from 10 hours a century ago to 6.5 hours today.
Then, a funny thing happened. Business leaders have embraced the fertility of sleep. In a presentation text for The sleep revolution, a book by business mogul Arianna Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, explained: “Arianna shows that sleep is not only vital for our health, but also essential in helping us achieve our goals. “Sleep, in other words, has become another means of achieving one’s ends.
Sleeping for four hours is no longer a subject of admiration; it’s a sign that you are a stressed little cog in the machine. The thoughtful person gets their full eight hours and tracks their REM minutes on a well-designed app. No self-respecting start-up is complete without dormitories for employees who want to take an energetic nap and get back to work, again in their best light.
What is so bad about a tacit alliance between utopians and pragmatists? If leisure is justified by its contribution to other social ends – innovation, productivity, growth – it risks losing any perceived value as soon as it comes into conflict with these objectives. Any conflict between the two will always be resolved in favor of work. The result is 768 million hours of unused vacation days. And even when employees take time off, they feel the need to log into their work email between swims in the ocean.
As we restart the economy, we must be mindful of this competition between economic means and non-economic ends. Our reflex may be to put our noses on stone and make up for lost time. From past recessions, we know that economic shocks tend to be followed by increases in working hours. The confusion between work and home that took place during the lockdown has already lengthened working hours.
However, we have reason to be optimistic about this reset. For those fortunate enough to have been able to work from home, especially if they have been spared the extra chores of caring for sick children or parents, the pandemic has been a strange time of enforced leisure. Perhaps the past 18 months, as some have taken to the ukulele while others have spent more time with their families, has served as a fix, a reminder of what ends people want to pursue and the best ways. adapted to reach them.
Leisure should be sought only because it is possible. What was once the preserve of a small elite is now achievable for more of the advanced market companies than ever before. We must ensure that free time is made available to an even greater extent.
Yes, this free time could generate untold benefits for our knowledge economy. This could inadvertently lead to brilliant lines of code, unprecedented levels of innovation, and cultural flourishing. And policymakers may need to hear about these benefits. But as individuals, we gain by keeping a space to do things for themselves, an area without optimization. As Pieper wrote: “Work is the means of life; recreation at the end.