Why Your Leisure Time Is in Danger
Stop treating your time off as a productivity hack.
As Europe was recovering from the Second World War, the philosopher Josef Pieper was wondering about leisure. “A time like the present,” he admitted, “seems, of all times, not to be a time to speak of leisure. We are engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands are full.” But such periods of recovery, Pieper argued, were also an opportunity for societies to reconsider their collective ends—the type of house they wanted to build together.
Pieper was not the only one to stand up for leisure amid hard times. Shortly after the start of the Great Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes, who had lost nearly everything in the 1929 crash, suggested that people “devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.” He envisioned a 15-hour workweek for his grandchildren’s generation and looked ahead to a time when the population might “prefer the good to the useful.”
Much of the world is near the end of another global calamity. And once again, we have an opportunity to rethink the type of house we want to live in.
Over the past few months, a string of pundits and business columnists has been calling for a four-day workweek, paid parental leave, and tighter limits on mandatory overtime. Many of these thinkers rationalize proposals to give us back our time by promising that they will contribute to overall prosperity. A well-rested workforce, the argument goes, is a more productive one, and that’s a “bounty for bosses.” Iceland recently concluded a much-publicized five-year experiment in which 2,500 workers from more than 100 different firms reduced their working hours from 40 to 35 or 36 a week. Earlier this year, the Spanish government embarked on a similar experiment, cutting work to 32 hours a week. In 2019, Microsoft Japan also tried out a shorter workweek. Companies reported improvements in efficiency and overall productivity; in Microsoft’s case, productivity rose by 40 percent.
These experiments and the well-meaning arguments behind them illustrate a tricky paradox: Leisure is useful—but only insofar as it remains leisure. Once that time is viewed as a means to improve employee morale and higher growth, then leisure loses the very quality that makes it so potent. As Pieper wrote, “Leisure is not there for the sake of work.” Leisure is doing things for their own sake, to pursue what one wants. We should fight the urge to reduce it to a productivity hack.
This proposition is tougher than it seems because leisure time happens to be tremendously fruitful. Pieper and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote the essay “In Praise of Idleness” in 1932, did not agree on much—one was a Catholic philosopher, the other an atheist—but they did agree that time off fuels human creativity and innovation. Russell argued that it “contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations.” Pieper went so far as to attribute to leisure something of the sublime. To be at leisure was, in his words, “at once a human and super-human condition.”
Many of us know this for ourselves: When we are hiking in nature, or under the shower, or simply daydreaming, flashes of inspiration come as if from nowhere. Neuroscientists speak of the “incubation period” that often precedes illumination as an absence of task-related thought. Cognitive psychologists have shown that leisure lends itself to the type of “intrinsic motivation” that is uniquely effective for learning.
The private sector sees the value of this time, which is why it is so intent on blurring the line between work and nonwork. Management experts gush about how “daydreaming at work can fuel creativity.” Forward-thinking firms have responded with office hammocks and foosball tables and happy hours. Given how nearly half of the U.S. labor force is now engaged in some form of knowledge work, the ability to tap the creative potential of leisure has come to have real economic worth.
At the same time that our companies and policy makers are recognizing the value of leisure, employees have decided that they don’t need it. As countries grew richer over the mid-1900s, average working hours decreased and leisure increased. Then, sometime around 1985, the trend reversed: Leisure hours started falling, affecting the most well-off people within wealthy countries—the very people who made up what was once called the “leisure class.” The same pattern now shows up in emerging economies. The richest and the most educated are working more than they did 20 years ago. Income inequality has risen, but as the economist Robert H. Frank observes, “leisure inequality” is “growing as a mirror image, with the low earners gaining leisure and the high earners losing.”
Shortly before the pandemic, a study run jointly by Oxford Economics and Ipsos found that in 2018, more than half of Americans had not used all their vacation days. All told, Americans had failed to use 768 million days of paid time off. That was a 9 percent increase in forgone vacation from the prior year.
Among the handful of studies that examine the quality of our leisure time by reviewing diary records, the findings are even more sobering. “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 income and education levels.
Technology usually gets most of the blame. But for all the focus on smartphones as the culprit, a more fundamental factor is at play. We yearn to “make the most of” our free time, so we are constantly giving our evenings, weekends, and vacations over to our self-advancement. Labor-market precarity and the growth of the gig economy have sharpened these incentives. Pure leisure now feels like pure indulgence.
How did people come to view leisure as a means to an end? In a reflection of leisure’s paradoxical quality, calls for its expansion tend to come first from utopians musing about human dignity, before being embraced by hardheaded pragmatists looking at input-output tables. What the social reformer Robert Owen put forward in 1810 as a radical notion, the industrialist Henry Ford advocated a century later as good business. In 1926, Ford, who had already reduced the number of daily working hours in his factories from 10 to eight, then also shortened the workweek from six to five days.
In an interview following his factory reforms, he explained, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” On the basis of such solemn words, one might almost mistake him for an advocate of the good life. Ford was quick to rectify that impression: “Of course,” he went on, “there is a humanitarian side to the shorter day and the shorter week, but dwelling on that side is likely to get one into trouble, for then leisure may be put before work instead of after work—where it belongs.” Ford found that with their additional day off, his workers showed up “so fresh and keen that they are able to put their minds as well as their hands into their work.” Better yet, they used their time off to buy more things, which Ford argued would increase aggregate demand, fueling growth. Leisure became a means to a means.
This passing of the baton from utopians to pragmatists is a regular occurrence. Consider the odd fortune that has befallen sleep, that primordial cousin of leisure. The number of sleep hours for the average North American went from 10 hours a century ago to 6.5 hours today.
Then, a funny thing happened. Business leaders embraced the fruitfulness of sleep. In a blurb for The Sleep Revolution, a book by the business mogul Arianna Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, explained, “Arianna shows that sleep is not just vital for our health, but also critical to helping us achieve our goals.” Sleep, in other words, has become another means to an end.
Getting by on four hours of sleep is no longer cause for admiration; it’s a sign that you’re a small, stressed-out cog in the machine. The thinking person gets their full eight hours and tracks their REM minutes on a well-designed app. No self-respecting start-up is complete without sleep pods for employees who would like to take an energy nap and return to work, their best selves once more.
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 stands to lose any perceived worth as soon as it comes into conflict with those goals. An eventual clash between the two will always be settled in favor of work. The result is 768 million hours of unused vacation days. And even when employees take time off, they feel an urge to log in to their work email between dips in the ocean.
As we restart the economy, we must be mindful about this contest between economic means and noneconomic ends. Our reflex might be to put our nose back to the grindstone and make up for lost time. From past recessions, we know that economic shocks tend to be followed by an increase in working hours. The blurring of work and home that took place under lockdown has already lengthened working hours.
However, we have reason to feel optimistic about this reset. For those lucky enough to have been able to work from home—especially if they were spared additional duties of caring for children or sick parents—the pandemic has been an odd period of imposed leisure. Perhaps these past 18 months, as some took up the ukulele while others spent more time with their family, have served as a corrective, a reminder of what ends people want to pursue, and what means are best suited to attaining them.
Leisure should be aspired to for no other reason than that it is possible. What used to be the preserve of a small elite is now achievable for a greater portion of advanced market societies than ever before. We should ensure that time off is made available to a greater portion still.
Yes, this leisure time might generate untold benefits for our knowledge economy. It might inadvertently lead to some brilliant lines of code, unprecedented levels of innovation, and a flourishing of culture. And policy makers may need to hear about those benefits. But as individuals, we gain from preserving a space for the doing of things for their own sake, a zone free of optimization. As Pieper wrote, “Work is the means of life; leisure the end.”