Tom Hodgkinson: The objection to a shorter working day is snobbish - what would the unwashed do with all this leisure time?

 

Share

Should we be talking about a shorter working day? I've just read a fantastic new book about the American labour movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, Benjamin Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, shows that before they got bogged down demanding higher wages, stability and better conditions, unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies) lobbied for a progressive reduction in working hours.

Hunnicut goes back further and shows that the United States' founding fathers such as John Adam foresaw a society which placed leisure and not work at its centre. The working day would be gradually reduced from 12 to 10, to eight and then to six hours, in order to allow plenty of time for the real stuff of life: study, philosophy, learning crafts, the forgotten arts of husbandry, voluntary activity in groups, playing music, co-operative ventures; in short, the stuff that we humans naturally like to do when freed from authority and compulsion.

The idea that leisure should be at the centre of life was of course not new. The Greek word schole, which turned into our word for school, meant free time. For teachers such as Aristotle and Epicurus, the contemplative life was the one which was most likely to lead to happiness. Work was necessary as a means to create the leisure time during which we would retreat to the groves and ponder the meaning of life, while growing vegetables and planning feasts.

The great loafer Walt Whitman was one of the key figures in the American campaign for a more leisured life for all. He believed that all men and women were born to pursue "higher progress" – the life of the mind – and that the aristocratic pursuit of the good life should not be confined to those wealthy by chance of parenthood. As he famously wrote in "Leaves of Grass": "I loaf and invite my soul/ I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

I think it is safe to assume that Whitman is using the word "lean" in its relaxed sense, rather than the sense of "be pushy" which is the way it's used by top Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. Oh! There are so many books that tell you how to win, and do better in your corporate job, but do any of them bring happiness?

The objection to a shorter working day is generally snobbish: what would the unwashed masses do with all this leisure time? Surely they would just get pissed all day on cheap lager in front of The Jeremy Kyle Show? The inheritors of this Protestant attitude believe that "the devil finds work for idle hands to do" and that it is the responsibility of every government to keep us all as busy as possible, engaged in some sort of productive labour. That the labour is generally far more productive for the owners of the company than for the worker is not often mentioned.

In fact, when left alone, people find they have plenty of interests they'd like to pursue. That's what hobbies are all about. There is a world of activity done for its own sake out there which is ignored by most politicians and economists, who believe that "hard-working families" is what life is all about.

Well, the struggle for the shorter working day is not lost altogether. Parliament's use of the phrase "hard-working families" came under attack recently by David Spencer, an economist at Leeds University, who argued that we could live better lives by working less: "Working fewer hours would free up more time for people to pursue activities outside of work and thus to realise their creative capacities in other ways." He called for a "struggle against the ideology of hard work" – one struggle worth getting out of bed for.

The New Economics Foundation think-tank has been campaigning for a 21-hour working week: in its publication Time on Our Side, authors Anna Coote and Jane Franklin argue that a four-day week should be made the norm for young people entering the world of work, and that as a society we should progressively cut the working day. These economists argue that a more even spread of work makes total sense in a world where some of us are over-worked and others under-worked. Is a more equitable distribution of work really beyond our capabilities?

Let us start the Shorter Hours Movement right now. Or quite soon, anyway.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star