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

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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'