mediaphotos/iStock

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.

[Read: How much leisure time do the happiest people have? ]

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.

[Derek Thompson: Workism is making Americans miserable]

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.

[Read: The free-time paradox in America]

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.”

About the author: Krzysztof Pelc is an associate professor in the political-science department at McGill University, in Montreal. His book Beyond Self-Interest: Why the Market Rewards Those Who Reject It will be published in spring of 2022 by Oxford University Press and Bloomsbury.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.