Do Americans really _want_ more leisure time?

Source: CNN
Source: CNN

Yesterday, I was linked to this marvelous interview with David Graeber (who’s an intellectual associated with Occupy and the anti-globalization movement). In it, he talks about the decline in demands for more leisure time:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

I’ve wondered about this a lot. There doesn’t seem any obvious reason why our economy is organized in such a fashion that everyone has to work so many hours. But, for some reason that’s not only the way it is, that’s also the way people have accepted it should be. You see people agitating for a better social safety net, but you rarely see them agitating for a shorter workweek. Even the existing labor protections re: work-weeks are kind of a joke. There are so many jobs in the US (like computer programmer) which don’t pay overtime even though they don’t really fit into the exempt categories.

Somehow, on a spiritual level, our relation to work and leisure has changed. I think there is an extent to which people actually require work–even meaningless work–in order to provide their lives with purpose. You see this when writers go on vacation or take time off from their day jobs; they’re confronted by an open expanse of time and find it impossible to make any progress at all. When you have so much free time, you’re forced to confront questions of value: What is worth my time? What is worth doing? Why should I do this instead of something else? What does all this effort mean?

But when you work for someone else, all of those value questions are taken away from you. And while you hate the lack of autonomy, there’s also something pleasurable in being freed from the need to confront questions that are, fundamentally, unanswerable.

In his interview, Graeber addresses the other main source of meaning that our society accepts: altruism.

Most people in America accept that it’s worthwhile: a) try to make money;  and b) try to help other people. That’s why people who try to find some meaning within the working world often try to find it within ‘helping’ professions (the stereotype is the Wall Street person who drops out to join a nonprofit)

And, as Graeber, notes that’s why those professions are so poorly remunerated. People actually want to do them.

However, his notion–redefining ‘work’ as being that which helps others–doesn’t actually solve the leisure problem. It merely shifts it around. So now instead of working sixty hours a week to make value for your corporate overlord, you’re doing it to make value for your school or your nonprofit overlord.

People don’t really want leisure, per se. Instead, they want something in their life that is more meaningful than the work that they are given. But I think that once upon a time, people thought that they could use their leisure time to create their own meaning. Nowadays, I think that we implicitly believe that meaning comes from institutions.

Look at the arts. Why do so many people want to become published novelists rather than, say, accomplished letter (or email) writers? It’s because when you write a beautiful letter, then you need to accept and embrace that letter’s worth on your own. It’s something that you create for yourself (well, and one other person). Whereas when you write a novel, you only really accept its worth when it sells.

Before people can demand more leisure, we need to have some understanding of the worth of leisure. Before we can demand it, we have to desire it. I wonder right now what more leisure means to people? Does it mean more time playing video games? More time watching TV? More time driving your kids to various appointments? More time drinking in bars? All those things are fine, I guess, but it’s no surprise that Americans don’t really want more of them.