Do you have a yen for yoga? A craving for cookery classes? Are you lusting after a language? If so, join the club...

You're lucky I've been able to find the time to write this, really. I was on my way to my yoga class at the Manchester Buddhist Centre when the phone went and I got the call to look into the subject of self-improvement. It was 7.15pm, and if you'll bear with me, you'll find out why the time was significant – as was the fact that the call came to my mobile.

You're lucky I've been able to find the time to write this, really. I was on my way to my yoga class at the Manchester Buddhist Centre when the phone went and I got the call to look into the subject of self-improvement. It was 7.15pm, and if you'll bear with me, you'll find out why the time was significant – as was the fact that the call came to my mobile.

It was a Thursday, which is why it was yoga. Had it been Monday or Wednesday it would have been the gym. And any other night the swimming pool, all other things being equal. But since we have a toddler in our house, I no longer do my guitar classes, Italian lessons and école de cuisine tuition. So there is a fighting chance that by the time you get to reading the end of this piece I'll have finished writing it.

The phenomenon we're to consider today is one that involves work, home, leisure, technology, psychological satisfaction and spiritual fulfilment. And if that sounds too much like the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything, then perhaps we should start with an anecdote. A friend of mine rang his London office during the middle of the day recently and asked to speak to a member of his staff. She was not there; she was at a Spanish lesson. He tried someone else; she was playing the piano. And a third; he was at the gym.

So he rang a friend in the Wall Street office. He wasn't there either. When the New Yorker later returned the call, he disclosed that he didn't get into his office these days till real late. By which he meant 10am. And he left at 4pm. He needed the extra free time to fit in his acupuncture, book club, shiatsu, creative writing, Pilates, meditation and storytelling sessions. Sure it had reduced his annual income from $10m to just $5m but, hell, there is more to life than money. Welcome to the wonderful world of self-improvement.

There's a lot of it about. According to Michael Freeston, the national education officer for the Workers' Educational Association, the UK's largest voluntary provider of "adult learning opportunities", demand over the last five years has virtually doubled. In 1995 it ran just 6,000 courses; it now runs 10,562. And the number of people signing up has rocketed by 55 per cent.

What all this points to is something more significant than you might imagine. Oldies should cast their minds back to Harold Wilson and the days of the "white heat of technology", which promised an imminent "leisure age" when we would all work just 20 hours a week. What we got instead was Margaret Thatcher's "enterprise culture", which transformed the world of work more radically than anything since the industrial revolution.

"The psychological contract changed dramatically," says Professor Cary Cooper at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology business school. He should know. He conducts an annual "quality of life" survey among 5,000 British managers. In the old days, he says, this unwritten contract offered "reasonably permanent employment for work well done". The Thatcher revolution replaced it with "a one-sided bargain by which employers demand flexibility, long hours, total commitment in return for an increasingly poor work-life balance".

This new world is one of intrinsic job insecurity, constant redundancies and restructurings, abrasive management style and a short-term contract culture, which psychologically affects even those who are still in permanent employment.

All of which has been heightened by new technology. E-mails, faxes and mobile phones have accelerated the pace of work and meant that everyone can be on call virtually round the clock. Even on their way to the evening yoga class.

The economic benefits of all this have been tremendous. It has made the UK economy the fourth-strongest in the world and the most robust in Europe. But at an enormous cost. Britain has experienced the worst decline in employee satisfaction anywhere in Europe (from 70 per cent to 45 per cent in just a decade) at a time when the UK has embraced the new work culture faster than any of its European counterparts. Insecurity is high, morale is descending, motivation and loyalty are being eroded, family life is fragmenting and divorce and depression are rising, not to mention the cost of policing the losers who, in a competitive society, will always try to get back at the winners.

But it is not just the losers. Even those high-fliers who made it to the top have begun to rethink. What is the good of having a BMW M3 coupé or a Predator 61 performance motor yacht if you rarely see anything but the photographs of them on your City desk. Even such a conspicuous consumer may eventually decide he needs to quit the job to spend more time with his possessions.

For a decade now, the boldest of the disillusioned have been downshifting. They have moved from the city to the country, swapped a stressful job for a poorer- paid one, and exchanged disposable goods for disposable time. What the rest of us more pusillanimous types are now doing, says Cary Cooper, is "reacting with the same impulse but on a much smaller scale". Hence the cookery lessons and the French conversation classes – a trend that has only been boosted by the psychological backwash from the millennium, which made us all sub-consciously agree that things could only get better, as the New Labour anthem promised.

"What people are saying," says Cooper, "is, 'If they won't honour the psychological contract, then I'll fill my work time with what interests me.'"

So lunchtime downshifting is the new thing. Most people may still think that lunch is only for wimps – the average lunch hour is now 28 minutes, and most of that is spent going to get the sandwich which is brought back to the desk to be eaten. But for the trendsetters, the lunch hour has become a gesture of workplace revolt. Jackets may still be on the back of chairs in the classic symbol of presenteeism. But, says Cooper, "people are saying: 'if you're going to force me to work these hours I'm going to take something out of them for myself'".

A handful of employers have noticed. Some turn a blind eye. Others, regarding themselves as particularly enlightened, are even providing a midday nap room so people can work till nine or 10 at night.

Yet lunchtime revolutionaries should not get too cocky. For there is a lot of delusion at the heart of self-improvement. The "joy of learning for its own sake" can veneer baser motives. In part, we may, like Irene Heron in The Forsyte Saga, be learning the piano merely to make ourselves a better catch. The internet now boasts its first "Self-Improvement Search Engine". It points you to courses offering subjects such as communication training, leader- ship skills, memory training, public speaking, speed reading and time management. Yet these are often just thinly-disguised ways of improving our employability. And it's no coincidence that the two things internet enquirers most popularly search for are "inner peace" and "make more money". It reveals a singularly Californian embodiment of the dream for a better world – a kind of Buddhism meets Dale Carnegie, which tells us how to achieve spiritual stillness while making (rich) friends and influencing people.

There are other tensions lurking inside notions of "personal development". Even activities that less obviously blur the boundaries between work and pleasure take on an unattractive sheen in the hands of strenuous overachievers whose main aim in life seems to be to make the rest of us feel inadequate at dinner parties.

The hippies had it right on that one. They understood that leisure wasn't just another place for the work ethic to resurface. "I don't know who I am," they sang as they headed for Yasgur's Farm, "but life's for learning." The trouble is that our modern equivalent of all that takes us into a spineless New Age world of morality-free "feel good" spirituality. "If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad," sings Sheryl Crow from the altogether more modern perspective of an ironic depressive.

There is a bigger problem. For why should work be something we need to escape from? Work, in due proportion, is one of the activities that define what it is to be fully human. In the words of the great American oral historian Studs Terkel: "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread." "We are stardust, we are golden," as the Woodstock lot put it, "and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." Or in my case to the gym. Oh, but hang on, that's my mobile going.