Leisure puzzles

by Rob Horning

13 February 2006


A study conducted by the Boston Fed cited in last week’s Economist (“The Land of Leisure”) argues that Americans have experienced an increase in leisure time over the past years, across the board, regardless of income. Yet most Americans feel subjectively that they have less, not more, free time. Why is this? One possibility is that Americans (and capitalism generally) have alienated work from enjoyment, so that leisure is a parallel form of work, something that we feel obliged to maximize and fully exploit (the way we are exploited while working). This Baudrillard calls the “fun morality” our ideologically driven compulsion ot enjoy ourselves in discrete, reified ways only at the appropriate times, in part so that the system that takes work as a negative utility makes rational sense. The more we view our time as being specifically designated for leisure, the more frantic we are to make it so, undermining the relaxation it is scheduled to provide to us.

This relates to the problem of convenience I referred to in the previous post. The more we save time, the more it seems to be scarce, because by saving it, we are converting it to a something to be measured and valued and spent and increasing its value. So as we tell ourselves how important our time is, we’re less inclined to waste it on things that are truly leisurely: “A walk in the park is more expensive than it used to be,” The Economist article points out, but not merely because our collective hourly wage is in general higher. The article also cites sociologist John Robinson, who believes the increased control we have over our schedule has the effect of making us more intolerant with any nuisance. But the more we overcome these nuisances, the more the petty things we once accepted and ignored become monumental irritations. It’s like the sliced apple—once we permit it in our lives, we can’t imagine the effrontery of having to cut our own fruit, we can’t accept that an industry doesn’t already exist to do it for us (for a fat profit margin).

Convenience replicates the separation of work and leisure, and pretends to provide you wth more efficient use of leisure. But reinforcing that separation makes everything seem like work, because it shuts people off from the primary human satisfaction (if you believe Marx)—that of meaningful transformative productive work that one has an inherent stake in. As long as work seems like a hassle, workers will continue to be exploited, in the name of their own leisure.

UPDATE: This post from economist Max Sawicky’s blog, analyzes the leisure/disutility of work question as well (and the same Boston Fed study about increased leaisure), taking on a close analysis of Adam Smith to get at the root of things. “Valuing work—whether it be market or non-market—at the ‘opportunity cost’ of foregone leisure is the same kind of Trojan horse as the fabled loathsomeness of Smith’s poor man’s son’s toil. It embeds the quality of the activity inside a quantitative black box that tells me it’s all the same whether my work is painful or pleasurable or whether my leisure is engaging or tedious. To that injury, the Becker shuffle adds the insult that some Chicago Boy knows better than I whether I’m fishing for food or for fun. According to the scheme, I get to choose to optimize my utility but somehow I don’t have the option of discerning that I didn’t actually have a choice. So, remind me then, how does choice happen in the absence of discernment?” Well-put. Work and lesure are not the simple opposites economists sometimes prefer them to be for the sake of modeling data.  If leisure is to be meaningful as an alternative to work, it must be something other than a depleted surrender—he adds, “Even watching TV may be leisure up to a certain point. But that point has arrived when one has neither the time nor the energy to do something else that would be more fulfilling.”

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