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13 November 2000

Let’s all go out to play

Our obsession with work is such that it infects even our children's lives. Rebecca Abrams demands mo

By Rebecca Abrams

Even in these dumbed-down times, when apparently only a handful of the population can recall why 1066 was a significant year, mention 2 May 1997 and you should see more than a few mental lights go on. For a generation brought up under Thatcherism, the day Tony Blair became Prime Minister has an iconic power to match the death of John Lennon, say, or the wedding of Charles and Di. It was a day when many of us couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces, when hope was rekindled, when the future looked measurably brighter.

It was a day made additionally memorable for me for another reason: it was the publication date for my book The Playful Self.

The ideas for this book had taken root during the long, dark years of Conservative government which overshadowed much of my adolescence and the whole of my twenties. Work had become the new idol, whom no amount of hours could appease. People’s worth was measured by the job they did and the money they made. Pity the poor sod who didn’t have either; shame on those who could have, but chose not to. Downshifting hadn’t yet been invented.

My book rejected this grindstone mentality. It questioned the supremacy of the right to work and called instead for a right to play, for a play ethic to balance the work ethic. I wanted the idea of play reclaimed from child psychologists, who had colonised it in the early Sixties, and applied to adult life, too. Play needed to be seen as a mindset as much as an activity. Play was not in the least trivial or childish, but a fundamental social good, an essential component of any well-rounded life and, by extension, any well-rounded society.

Placing such a high value on the right to play was by no means my invention. Philosophers and artists throughout the centuries, from Plato to Schiller to Bertrand Russell, have recognised the importance of play. According to Schiller: “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.” But throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, societies hell-bent on industrialising have had no time for such frivolities. Max Weber himself warned that the Protestant work ethic, if left unchecked, would suck all the nourishment out of life. But to no avail. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (a book that should be required reading for every school leaver in the country) dropped like a stone into postwar Europe, its elegant truths drowned out by rampant materialism. By the time I published The Playful Self, 50 years later, play had become firmly associated with the under-fives. Most adults, I discovered, responded to the word with incomprehension or scepticism.

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It has taken three years for the euphoria of Labour’s election victory to wear off, three years for the essential puritanism at the heart of new Labour to show itself. During that time, survey after survey has shown the implacable rise of the long-hours culture and the mounting strain on family life. The cost to our children of our overwork, stress and exhaustion is not yet known. Far from learning from them how to play, we infect their lives with our obsession with work; organise their time so that they, too, can put in a full working day at nursery or school. Media debate gnaws endlessly on the question of how to correct the work/life balance. Employers nod in the right direction, but make no substantial advances.

A new idea is long overdue and, excitingly, it may just have arrived. Suddenly, the idea of play is being retrieved from history’s dustbin. Pat Kane, the writer and musician, has launched a website,, to promote discussion of the place of play in our lives. Every Wednesday this month, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London is hosting talks about how to create a play ethic in society. This coming January, the think-tank Demos will be launching its own manifesto for a creative society. The Observer has just run a six-page spread on play in its magazine. Even the Industrial Society has started to use the p-word without embarrassment.

Play is stepping into the limelight at last and, especially now the policy boys have got the idea, it could run and run. Encouragingly, there is diversity within this fledgling debate. Kane calls for a play ethic to counter the work ethic, for more time out from the workplace, for people to redefine themselves as players rather than workers. Others, including Tom Bentley at Demos, argue against polarising work and play. “It can’t just be about work versus the rest of our lives,” says Bentley. “It’s about changing the way we think about the whole of our lives. It’s about the politics of well-being.” In other words, what is needed is a play ethic that is not set against a work ethic, but alongside it, suffusing both our working and non-working time.

Like it or not, we are fast moving away from a workplace based on productivity and rigid time demarcations, towards a new electronic economy, free from the restrictions of offices and machinery, unencumbered by traditional workplace hierarchies. Helen Wilkinson, a former member of the Demos staff, believes that this new economy will in turn drive a new kind of work ethic that will be inherently playful. “In the new economy,” she says, “boundaries between work and the rest of life are becoming much more porous. The individual is the bottom line and human creativity will have to be cultivated. Our culture as a whole is very rational, very left-brained, but all the skills needed for the new electronic economy need to cultivate right-brain skills.” Wilkinson has recently founded, an electronic business community. It includes an online “brain gym”, where elancers can go to stretch their minds, to pep up their mental playfulness. “Play will have to be central to the emerging new work ethic,” she says.

Strikingly absent from all these takes on play is any discussion of gender. Yet play is every bit as gendered as work in our society. The old industrial work ethic was a man-made product, and there’s a real risk that the newly hatched play ethic will be, too. The electronic community, for instance, may play on its androgynous potential, but in reality it is phenomenally male-based and male-oriented. Whose play needs will it aim to serve exactly? The mega-flaw in the “limit time at work” argument is that it presupposes (as men will) that time not at work equals time to play. Not true – unless you count as play cooking food that won’t get eaten and washing clothes that don’t stay clean. For women with partners and children, non-working time is usually taken up not with leisure (still less play), but with housework and childcare. All the evidence shows that going out to work has not released women from the second shift. When it comes to housework and childcare, men still do little more than dip their toes in.

Women have made huge efforts to accommodate male patterns of work, deeply inimical to family life though they may be. In the past decade, the employees whose working hours have increased most are professional women with children, according to a forthcoming report from the Industrial Society. “Space for relaxed time, for playful time, is becoming ever scarcer in people’s lives,” says the society’s Richard Reeves. “We’re still locked into an industrial mindset when it comes to time, and by far the least time-sovereign people in our society are women.”

But Reeves remains hopeful. “Work can have a strong playful element, and we need to drive that philosophy through the doors of the office. The potential is there for women to help turn work into a more playful sphere of activity, while men, by getting more involved with their children, may be able to make home life more playful.”

I am less optimistic. Women are not just slavishly aping their male colleagues; they are spending more time at work because work is more fulfilling, more sociable, more rewarding than home. This is one of the most worrying indications yet that the old work ethic is debilitating family life. It certainly suggests that feminism did women a grave disservice when it focused so much of its attention on the right to work, without bothering to consider a woman’s right to play.

Men, on the other hand, have always been rather good at safeguarding their play space and their play time (think pubs, clubs, football pitches). Indeed, the main reason why play is suddenly gaining currency is that, for the first time in two centuries, a critical mass of men in their thirties and forties are suffering a serious infringement of their play rights. This is a generation of men who want to be more involved with their families, but who also want time to work. What gets pushed out of the frame is play. Women might put up with this. Men won’t.

The language of human rights talks of “an inalienable right to work”, but what is needed now is an equally inalienable right to play. When we cheered Labour’s election victory, we weren’t just celebrating the prospect of investment in the health service, in education and – hollow laughter – in public transport. We were also cheering what we hoped would be a change of heart at a deeper level. We had voted not simply for an end to Conservatism, but for a new philosophy for living. So far, new Labour has disappointed us on that score. How apt that the Millennium Dome was such a failure. What better symbol of the government’s utter ineptitude when it comes to being playful?

There’s a hunger for a better quality of life; a concern for environmental sustainability; deep anxiety about the fate of family life in the face of the insatiable demands of the workplace. Old-style structures of employment do need challenging. Yet the work/life balance debate has a tendency to run aground almost as soon as it gets afloat. What we need is a complete rethink. No amount of tinkering with working hours and work structures, no amount of extra childcare, no tax sops to appease working parents will make a blind bit of difference if we remain in thrall to a work ethic that pushes everything else to the periphery of our lives.

The making of a right is the legalising and politicising of an ethic. In 1801, in Theory of Legislation, Jeremy Bentham wrote: “There are two ways of doing injury to mankind; one, the introduction of pains; the other, exclusion of pleasures. Both are acts of tyranny, for in what does tyranny consist, if not in this?” We cannot talk about a play ethic unless we acknowledge play as a social good, a political right. To do so requires a seismic shift in our way of thinking about not just work, but life generally. At last we seem to be moving in that direction.

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