The 'Future of Work' is important - but the 'Future of Leisure' is even more so
Very often we hear futurists talk of the 'Future of Work'. Last month the New York Times hosted a 'New Work Summit'. The Atlantic runs their own version called 'Future of Work Summit'. The McKinsey Global Institute has published several reports on the subject, calling it 'one of the hottest topics of 2017', and produces a podcast called The New World of Work.
These initiatives are asking key questions such as: How will the increase of automation, digital platforms and other innovations affect the job market? How will it change the way we define 'work'? What are the jobs of tomorrow?
But what's often left out of the conversation is leisure. It's been left at the other end of the spectrum - although it is essential to a holistic view of our future.
Currently, a third of British workers think their jobs are meaningless. Will the 'job of tomorrow' succeed in providing us with a sense of life purpose? And when considering the prospects Universal Basic Income, the visions often look forward to a future of less work and more leisure. (Though UBI may be too utopian for some, experiments conducted around the world are showing positive results - which we cover with great enthusiasm here on the Daily Alternative).
Shouldn't we then be talking about the 'Future of Leisure' instead? If so, we could ask questions like:
- What can we do with more free time?
- Will we be bored out of our minds or will we seize the opportunity to pursue new interests, spend more time with our family or get involved with our local community?
- What are the leisure activities that can lead us in the direction of what we are all in essence looking for - a joyful, meaningful and happy life?
In a recent piece on Democracy Journal, writer Stuart Whatley makes a thorough argument for why it's time we rediscovered the lost art of leisure. The whole piece is well worth a read - here's an extract:
Properly conceived, leisure could be the ultimate social safety net for an era of technologically driven uncertainty. It is potentially a space for bootstrapping new “careers,” which may or may not adhere to the traditional forms of self-employment or wage labour. It is also a space where one can move beyond the career-as-identity paradigm altogether, and contribute to one’s community through cultural and civic activities that are ignored in economic models because they are unremunerated. As the mid-century thinkers understood, leisure is not just a temporal dimension of modern life; it is also an optimal state of mind, one that people can learn to summon up for themselves when afforded the education and means to do so.
He goes on to outline the current challenges and necessary changes to be made, especially within education and policy making, for a leisure society to flourish. Then he concludes:
So what is to be done? In the near term, policymakers might consider appropriating less to the military, and more to parks, after-school programs, and the arts and humanities. They could also take a look at the commercial leisure and entertainment industries. Over the past decade, more people have been spending more time on Facebook, whose business model is not all that different than the tobacco industry—it addicts its users, denies its own harmful effects, and expands its user base by targeting children and developing countries.
Commercial leisure and entertainment industries are undergoing a technological transformation that will be just as profound as the changes in work. But if the prevailing market incentive is to manufacture addiction, then the future of leisure could be bleak indeed. It remains to be seen if those designing social-media platforms, video games, virtual- and augmented-reality applications, and other technologies will feel pressured to do so responsibility.
More broadly, enjoying the fruits of leisure will likely require what Riesman, the sociologist, described as “a change in perspective on the world and the self.” Much will depend on whether educational institutions can resist the urge to double down on the most employable STEM fields at the expense of everything else, not least the liberal arts, which concern themselves most with the good life.
Eventually, Robert C. Wolcott of Northwestern University tells me, people may “transition to seeing their limited attention as the primary asset.” And at the same time, more goods and services will become “‘free’ and automated, so people will become less concerned with competing for them.” For Wolcott, the objective, then, will be “for 100% of sentient beings to find purpose for at least some of their attention.”
In the meantime, many people might resent the idea of more leisure for more people because they believe that everyone has a duty to contribute to society through traditional employment. But paid labor is only one part of our larger political economy, the health of which depends just as much on cultural and artistic expression, civic engagement, and the kind of social and human capital that is developed during well-spent leisure time
In a technologically “disrupted” future, work may or may not matter anymore. But leisure most certainly will.
In an article on openDemocracy titled "Priceless moments: how capitalism eats our time" writer Maria Askew argues that our leisure activities must break ties with consumerist culture for us discover the true potential of our free time.
A 2014 study commissioned by MasterCard found that only half of all Americans have been on, or are planning to take, a vacation. In response to this seeming irrationality, the company launched its #OneMoreDay 2014 campaign with an advert that featured children advocating for Americans to take their vacation days. The campaign implored viewers to “pledge to take one more day of vacation, and make the most of it with MasterCard.” The company’s motivation to come out in support of taking holidays seems clear: more free time equals more time for consumption—a perfect illustration of the fact that taking ‘free time’ is not enough to free ourselves from capitalist culture.
The current system rests on workers using their limited free time for consumption in order to sustain the economy, to the extent that it can seem impossible to achieve quality time away from work without excessive or unsustainable spending, let alone envision meaningful alternatives. Economic rationality leaves no room for authentic free time that neither produces nor consumes commercial wealth.
Consumer culture has led to shopping malls replacing town squares, and a watered down, formulaic movie industry which dominates over more innovative or challenging forms of entertainment. However, in a world permeated by economic rationality we can still find cracks. Shippen gives examples of meaningful leisure found in community gardens, mindfulness and the slow food movement, advocating solutions based on improving the qualitative aspects of life, not only for individuals but for all of society. While these activities are limited in their ability to reclaim time from capitalism, community-centred actions strengthen our ability to self-organise and conceptualise non-capitalistic ways of doing things.
Ultimately, to improve the quality of our leisure time we must become conscious of the structures that depoliticise and rationalise our time in economic terms, and the related inequalities that come with this process. Only when we see these structures clearly can we begin to actively resist them and build alternatives. Increased awareness empowers us to protect and strengthen the intrinsic riches of our communities; embrace authentic, meaningful moments as they arise; and take action to reclaim time from capitalism by radically transforming the world in which we live.
We intend to explore this topic further on the Daily Alternative. And with our political laboratories we hope to foster leisure activities of real value for the individual and the community. Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in getting involved.