People have dreamt for many years about a world without work. In an essay in 1891, Oscar Wilde imagined a future where, “just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure — which, and not labour, is the aim of man — or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work”.
This year, rapid developments in artificial intelligence have reignited questions about whether machines might one day replace the need for human labour entirely. I am sceptical, not least because we humans have a remarkable ability to make work for ourselves. But let’s suppose for a moment that technological progress did usher in an age of leisure. Would we actually be able to cope with it?
When John Maynard Keynes speculated about the “economic possibilities for our grandchildren” in 1930, he thought the end of work as we know it might provoke a collective “nervous breakdown,” saying “I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades”.
Almost a century later, we don’t seem much closer to being able to adjust to a life of leisure. At least when Keynes was writing, people were moving gradually towards less work in their lives, with steady reductions in weekly working hours from one generation to the next. But that trend ground to a halt in the 1990s: usual weekly hours for full-time workers have averaged about 40 across OECD countries since then.
In some sectors and countries, workers are still pushing for more leisure time. IG Metall, Germany’s biggest industrial union, is considering arguing for a four-day week for steel workers in its upcoming collective bargaining process this November. But others seem more wedded to work than ever. A large survey of workers in the US by the Pew Research Center this year found that 46 per cent don’t even take all the paid leave to which they’re entitled. The most popular reasons cited by workers were that they didn’t “feel the need” for more time off, and that they worried they might fall behind. Platforms such as PTO Exchange have popped up to allow Americans to exchange their unused leave for “other things of value” such as retirement funds or student loan repayments.
Leisure time, too, has for some become more performative and focused on goals or achievements. Runs are not just enjoyed but timed and tracked; books are not just read but counted up and shared on social media. As Oliver Burkeman writes in his book Four Thousand Weeks, many people feel a sense of “discomfort with anything that feels too much like wasting time”. Hobbies are faintly embarrassing, but “side-hustles” are cool. He urges readers to spend more time on “atelic activities” which have no end goal, and are done purely for the pleasure of doing them. Inspired, I signed up for a pottery class last year. I tried to tell myself it was character-building that I was the worst in the class, and that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t actually making any usable pots. But in the end, I gave up.
Even doing nothing at all is now marketed to the anxious or ambitious as a roundabout way to be more productive. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s very good book Rest has the subtitle “Why you get more done when you work less.” A meditation from business consultancy ProNappers reassures listeners that “napping is a great use of your time”.
Is this constant need to make use of every hour just human nature? Not necessarily. In the days of cottage industry in England, for example, contemporary accounts suggest people worked hard, but they didn’t work relentlessly and they would trade income for leisure when the circumstances allowed. “When the framework knitters or makers of silk stockings had a great price for their work, they have been observed seldom to work on Mondays and Tuesdays but to spend most of their time at the alehouse or nine-pins,” huffed John Houghton, a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1681. “As for the shoemakers, they’ll rather be hanged than not remember St Crispin on Monday.”
Perhaps we should make a start on relearning the lost arts of leisure now, rather than waiting for a fully automated future that might never arrive. As Pang writes: “rest has never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it.”