The leisure society ranks right up there with the flying car as a topic where there’s been a whole lot of talk and very little action.
Anyone who’s been around a while will have heard many stories about how greater workplace productivity – often linked to computers and mechanization – would free us from toil, shortening the workweek and providing us with the opportunity for personal development.
That’s happened like the Jetsons’ family car has saved the Detroit Three.
When it comes to leisure time, we’ve been going backwards instead. Actually, the same could be said about the automakers.
So, what happened to all that leisure time we were promised?
You can blame industrialization, but we’re also responsible to a certain extent, allowing for a sense of community to fade away while indulging our own greed.
“We’re always pushing to get more and have more and do more,” says Richard Danielson, a professor in the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University in Sudbury.
He and his wife, Dr. Karen Danielson, have made a long study of the mythical leisure society, concluding that the changes that brought us the assembly line and mass-production ended up being applied to all facets of our lives, putting us on the treadmill of the consumer society.
“It’s a symptom of industrialization, the growth society where we’re going for more and more and more,” he says.
Adds Karen, “the industrial system was designed to do things like produce cars and widgets. It wasn’t designed for people.”
Those inadequacies, however, didn’t prevent us from adopting them into other parts of our lives. Ironically, that includes our leisure time, which has become just another commodity to be arranged in blocks of time and paid for.
“That system is actually providing our leisure – entertainment and fun activities. We’re paying for that, and doing it on a rigid time schedule.”
In that sense, we’re actually working harder to pay for our leisure. Instead of enjoying the simple pleasures in life, the ones that really matter to us at the end of the day, we’ve let our personal time become monetized, like so much else in life.
The rub comes in the fact that money, an external factor, can only motivate us for so long. Eventually, we will need to foster our internal values of love, family, happiness and personal fulfillment. The society we’ve created can’t nurture those ideals.
We’ve come to our current state by suppressing our nature, our long history of interdependence on others, of building long-term relationships, says Karen.
The perversion of natural tendencies is no more evident than in the concept of quality time that has developed in the last few decades: scheduling small sessions of time with family. Whereas family time, and wider community ties, were for the most part just part of normal, everyday life, we’ve even managed to treat time with our children as another specialized commodity, another block on the calendar.
That’s not really a surprise, their research reveals, given the way we try to treat everything in an industrial fashion, including many things that don’t work well in a factory mindset: health care, social services, education and the arts, for instance.
Under the modern influence, we’ve become short-term thinkers: the next purchase, the next paycheque, the next bit of pleasure. Just as that kind of thinking has crippled our economy – think about all the companies using today’s stock price, this quarter’s numbers as an excuse to downsize or move offshore, not to mention the scams and financial shortcuts – it trickles down into our everyday lives.
The good news is that there are some people starting to challenge some decades-old assumptions about how we organize our society. Just as the environmental movement, for instance, started with a few voices in the wilderness and gradually grew to become mainstream thinking, so too can we hope for improvements in our lifestyles that might yield more leisure time.
“There are people who realize there are alternatives. You can just say no to work,” Richard quips.
Although he sees no end to the all-too-common 50-, 60-, or 70-hour workweek on the horizon, Danielson remains optimistic that things will change, even if that means things have to get worse before they get better.
“We’re a society under stress. We will get sicker. We will decrease our lifespan. We will have more social unrest. And our society will fail.”
However, things may not get that far; we may try to halt the pain before it gets too bad, putting ourselves back on the course that served us for much longer than the current fixation on methods of industrialization.
“It will change, it’s just a matter of how long we want to suffer. Eventually, if you hurt enough, you’ll fix it.”