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  1. Culture
9 May 2023

You should only work four hours a day

Life without leisure is barely worth living.

By Wessie du Toit

Decades ago, Roland Barthes quipped that “one is a writer as Louis XIV was king, even on the toilet”. He was mocking the way literary types like to distinguish themselves from the mass of working people. Writers insist, Barthes believed, that their productive activities are not limited to any time and place, but flow constantly like an “involuntary secretion”.

Well, we are all writers now, at least in this sense. Stealing a few holiday hours to work on an article used to be my party trick. Now I find that, on Mondays and Fridays when many office buildings stand empty, my salaried comrades are sending emails from an Airbnb somewhere. Come the weekend, they might close their laptops, but they don’t stop checking their phones.

Of course this hardly compares with the instability further down the pay scale. Around one in seven British workers now do gig-economy jobs like Uber or Amazon delivery at least once a week, according to research for the Trades Union Congress, many of them on top of full-time employment.

Work today is fluid, overflowing its traditional boundaries and seeping into new domains. Meditation and exercise look suspiciously like personal optimisation. Artistic vocations centre on tireless self-promotion to a virtual audience. A movement of “homesteaders” churning their own butter and knitting their own jumpers are simply cosplaying older forms of work, and probably posting the results on Instagram.

With the help of our digital tools, we are adapting ourselves to productivity as involuntary secretion. The result is an evisceration of personal life and an epidemic of burnout.

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Our diffuse working culture has attracted plenty of critiques. The problem is most of them share the basic outlook that enabled the spread of work to begin with. Should we recognise “quiet quitting” as a justified response to unreasonable demands by employers? Is rest a form of “resistance”? Do we all just need a better “work-life balance”? These arguments present life as a two-way split between work and some nondescript realm of personal freedom, the question being how we can reclaim time from one for the sake of the other.

As long as the alternative to work remains just a negative space, work will continue leaching into it. What we are missing is a real counterbalance: a positive vision of leisure.

Properly speaking, leisure is not rest or entertainment, though it can provide both. It is not mere fun, though it ought to be satisfying. Its forms change over time, but it generally involves elements of play, fantasy and connection with other people or the natural world. Most importantly, leisure is superfluous to our worldly needs and ambitions: something we do not as a means to any end, but simply for its own sake.

[See also: The case for a four-day working week has never been stronger]

Truly mass participation in leisure was a striking feature of British life in the early 20th century. People played in brass bands and raced pigeons. They learned to dance and performed in plays and choirs. In 1926 nearly 4,000 working-class anglers from Birmingham took part in a single fishing competition along 20-odd miles of river. During the 1930s, as the historian Ross McKibbin writes, “one of the great sights of the English weekend were the fleets of cyclists riding countrywards along the arterial roads of the major towns”.

People still do these things, of course, but they do them as hobbies. The hobby belongs to a culture defined by work: it is a creature of downtime and a quirk of character. Hobbies rely on individual enthusiasm, so they often collapse in the face of stress or time pressure. Besides, we tend to judge them by the unleisurely criteria of self-improvement. Physical and intellectual pursuits are admirable, since they bring fitness and cultural capital. Excessive interest in bird watching marks you out as an eccentric.

Taking the superfluous seriously is a brave act in a utilitarian world, so leisure needs its own social legitimacy to thrive. This used to come from class-based associational life, with its clubs, unions and organised religion. If video games and social media smack of pseudo-leisure, it is because they are often part of a lonely struggle with the productivity impulse: they palliate restless and atomised minds. Maybe the only forms of leisure with a more than marginal role in popular culture today are amateur football, travel and the pub.

Aristotle thought a political community should exist to provide the conditions for leisure, which he saw as the key to human flourishing. At the very least, it is crucial for a balanced existence. Meaningful work, entertainment and indulgence all have their place, but they become destructive in excess. Life should be more than an on/off switch. Leisure is the space for conversation and reflection, friendship and loyalty, playfulness and joie de vivre. These are not qualities we can develop because we want them on our CVs: they are by-products of doing something for its own sake.

In a more civilised society, leisure would define our identities as much as labour does. To see what a distant prospect that is, try to imagine a politician talking about activities that might bring satisfaction to our lives half as much as he or she talks about “ordinary working people” or “hard-working families”. Celebrating leisure would be branded out-of-touch, but that is because we have accepted the disgraceful assumption that enjoyable pastimes are only for those who can afford them.

Asset-holding baby boomers are the masters of leisure today, using retirement for tourism, sport and artistic dabbling. Good for them. Still, we should resist the idea that such opportunities must be earned by decades of graft. This morality feels natural only because we don’t acknowledge our common interest in leisure. We accept everyone wants higher pay, so why treat activities that enrich our culture as an extravagance?

The struggle to keep work in its proper place has already consumed a generation: the lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss published his bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek in 2007. It seems not all of us want to be our productive selves even on the toilet.

But it’s equally clear that blank slots carved out of our personal timetables are too flimsy: you cannot beat discipline with discipline. It would be better if we combined our productive energies and channelled them towards reviving the art of leisure.

[See also: Who is the four-day week for?]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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