The Absurdity of Leisure
“The contrary of a civilized nation is a creative nation. I have the mad hope that, without knowing it perhaps, these barbarians lounging on beaches are actually modelling the image of a culture in which the greatness of man will at last find its true likeness.”
Albert Camus, Summer in Algiers
Today, we must ask ourselves primarily if we believe that work is a means to an end, or rather an end in it itself? The former despite being the seemingly instinctive choice is by no means the option we most now gravitate towards. We are expected to define ourselves via our career prospects, and are schooled to accept the dread of going to work. The mere conception of the “weekend” now has subtractive value. Time off work is cruelly diminished as a period of time when we are not expected to work. A time that should be wholly dedicated to friends, family and our own leisure is defined not by what it is but by what it is not.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the working week would be drastically cut, to 15 hours. He foresaw that we would choose to have far more leisure as our material needs were more easily satisfied. The proven increase in living standards and aggregate pay wages has made Keynes’ imagined reality feasible for many in the western world. In fact, up until the 1970s it was conventional wisdom that the working week (once 7 days) would continue to get shorter. For 100 years throughout the industrial nations working hours gradually but steadily reduced and by all estimates were cut in half (BBC Analysis, 2019). However, since World War 2 we have had no increase in free time and leisure. This odd phenomenon has been labeled the great leisure mystery. Keynes was obviously wrong. Instead of deciding to work less, we have seemingly chosen to work more. The needs of the economy have thus come to trump our own. Recently many economists, Professors, writers, and journalists have taken note of this trend dedicating countless articles, podcasts and published work on the alluring idea of a shorter 4 day working week. Yet as we begin to correctly problematize the overworking of our modern labour force we must also take careful note as to what that implies. As this article will discuss discursive practices used when discussing leisure time have the potential to further problematize our understanding of what work is and is meant to be.
The working week was first famously shortened in the modern epoc by Henry Ford in the 1920s, from 6 to 5 days. This act was not one of mere benevolence, the reasons for his decision were two fold. Firstly, he wanted to assure his workers would be more productive. Yet majorly Ford decreased the amount of time spent in the factory as he realised that most no longer had enough time to use a car to indulge in weekend trips. He needed thus to give people a reason to buy his product. He increased leisure solely to sustain consumption. Today, like Ford, we have prioritized luxury, and fulfilled Rostow’s prediction of a society of high mass consumption (first explicated within his notorious economic growth model). Currently we consume more because technical progress has vastly improved the quality of goods on offer. As we get richer we want more luxury goods so we work longer and harder to get richer and richer. It becomes evident that Ford’s reason for increasing leisure time is as contorted as our instinct to work more. Undoubtedly, regenerating money back into the economy is not the reason why we should choose to work less.
Similarly, some economists predict that it is necessary for a sustainable economy for people to work for more of their lifetime into their 70s (BBC Analysis, 2019). Thus advocates of the shorter working week defend its value by suggesting that providing more spheres of free time through out one’s working life will be able to keep us healthier and in turn working for longer. Yet this mentality is just as contrived as that above. Advocates of these contentions lie in bed with heads of tech startups who put foosball tables in the middle of the office and tell their employees to come into work in t-shirts as opposed to any professional suit and tie, while nonetheless expecting their subordinate colleagues to never leave the office at night. The idea is that the nature of work is societally restructured so we can easily come to tolerate its never ending presence. The temporal boundaries between our times of work and our times of relax have been blurred. Today, there is no longer a need for clocking in and out, as work has now become a site of leisure in of itself.
Yet, the prospect of leisure becomes most dangerous outside the auspices of the 5 day 40 hour week. Our fundamentally problematic view of labour becomes evident via non contracted work. More workers have chosen to work part time or become part of the gig economy. Britain’s gig economy has more than doubled in size over the past three years accounting for over 4.7 million workers (Partington, 2019). Countless have been conditioned to think that these precarious options, with no societal protection are a great flexible alternative which allows us to restructure our schedules as we indulge in free time in whatever way we wish. However, half of all employees with a secondary job do so because they need the money not because they wish to explore a new passion (Henley Business School, 2018). As the World Bank admits these informal structures are propagated in hopes to keep down labour mobility costs, increase the number of available job seekers, encourage wage moderation and thus increase flexibility of the workforce (World Bank, 2019). Yet, an analysis based in the work of Karl Polanyi should remind us that these practices simply (dis)embed labour from legal, normative and cultural constraints through the process of commodification, which reinstates labour market competition onto workers themselves. Normatively this commodification makes it so labour is seen as a “fictitious commodity”, a factor of production as opposed to a human quality. This normative practice undoubtedly leads to the propagation of harmful and precarious working conditions. Via this commodification labour’s essential character and human quality is destroyed, man’s raison d’être becomes bounded to the tag cultural institutions provide to it. Most part time and gig economy workers are conditioned to love their new employment structure under the false pretense of having more free time. Even though these conditions mat be beneficial to some like stay at home parents, the majority of these professions are propogated to assure low mobility costs so that these precarious lives act as buffers for the volatile economy. The epitome of the modern “reserve army of labor” (Marx, 1981). Ironically in fact, a third of those who take on gig economy work are also those with two or more “side hustles” (Zurich, UK, 2017).
We are conditioned to think that we take up these side hustles because we are “natural entrepreneurs” who do so out of desire not necessity. We don’t know when to stop working. Similarly, we adore, the idea of having university learning commons open for 24 hours. It means we can go in whenever we want, yet the direct implication is that our time for work never cuts off, its nature is for us never-ending. This rhetoric follows the storyline dispelled by a recent Guardian Article on the topic of leisure stating that “One possible explanation is that many of us actually enjoy work, despite what we say to pollsters and to each other” (Elliott, 2019). Yet, even if this is true as explained above underlying commodification practices and economic governmentality has taught us to appreciate work not as an honest way to ground our own humanity. In fact, the claim made by Guardian author Larry Elliot becomes harder to believe when we are reminded that only 1/5 of UK workers are committed to their work place (BBC Analysis ,2019) ; and that only one quarter are protected by collective bargaining agreements which join labourers together. Employees in amazon distribution centers, Deliveroo cyclists and commercial telemarketers are unlikely the modern hub of a shared cultural and worker identity.
As the dynamics of leisure and work become increasingly entrenched we are left with a lingering anxiety as to what to do with our “free time.” We forget what it truly means to just stop. Going back to Camus’ initial quote “barbarians lounging on beaches are actually modelling the image of a culture in which the greatness of man will at last find its true likeness.” We should find our relief as we praise simple moments of sunshine, kissing and dancing. Leisure should thus be liberally unbounded by the fortresses of our societal and economic anxieties. We must fight for free time that is thus truly and unequivocally free.
Elliot, Larry (2008). “Economics: Whatever happened to Keynes' 15-hour working week?”, Guardian, September 8th 2008, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics
Accessed: October 23rd 2019.
Henley Business School (2018). “The Side Hustle Economy” A White Paper from Henley Business School, University of Reading: UK.
Marx K (1867) Capital. (trans. Fernbach D). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Partington, Richard (2019). “Gig economy in Britain doubles, accounting for 4.7 million workers” Guardian, June 28th , 2019, Available at: drive.google.com/drive/u/1/folders/1jkSiU2THPfpahkjz-mI8kWd210WjuE0X Accessed: October 23rd 2019.
Polyani K (1944). The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
BBC Analysis, 2019. “A Shorter Working Week” BBC Radio 4, 22nd July, 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006zxz Accessed: October 23rd 2019.
Zurich, UK (2017). “Gig workers missing out on up to £75,000 in pension savings as auto-enrolment bypasses gig economy”, 8th Novemeber, 2017. Available at:https://www.zurich.co.uk/en/about-us/media-centre/life-news/2017/gig-workers-missing-out-on-up-to-75000-in-pension-savings-as-auto-enrolment-bypasses-gig-economy, Accessed: October 23rd 2019.