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A discussion on work and leisure in america

Brigid Schulte studies how people spend their free time in her new book. Like many of the subjects in her new book Overwhelmed: Now, her book charts the strained relationship that so many North Americans have with their leisure time. Schulte argues that we are suffering from "time sickness," and that our culture, our technology and our employers are making it difficult to experience anything but "contaminated time.

Schulte cites contemporary complaints about how, for so many, time has shrunk to a life of work and caregiving. And that while technology was supposed to liberate us, it has instead created a sense of ceaseless responsibility and basically spelled the end of a truly work-free environment.

Story continues below advertisement Still, for all the kvetching about having no time, she contends the sickness is partly our own fault: North Americans would rather achieve than relax.

One more step

In a culture that worships work, busyness has become a badge of honour. So just what is true leisure? Having studied everything from the relatively nascent field of time research to the ancient Greek philosophers, Schulte offers this answer: It involves being in the moment, cultivating yourself and connecting with people. The idea is to do something for its own sake, without obligation. It is meaningful human experience — refreshing the soul, if you will.

Why do we have such a hard time relaxing? What is it about having open space on the calendar? It's the one thing we say we want, but what's become so clear in North America is that we are not only work-focused, we are work-devoted.

In the '30, '40s and '50s, philosophers, economists and some of the greatest thinkers of the age described an era not far off when everybody would have so much leisure time: We'd only work 30 hours a week, four days a week, maybe half the year. Some were worried about that — what would we do to fill the time? Others believed it would be the next great advancement in human civilization: Well what happened then? Why is it that we value work so much?

If we don't value leisure, or if we treat leisure as a time to 'rest up' so we're better at our work, we've really lost the point of living.

At the same time we complain about how work conspires to ruin our weekends and our vacations. Story continues below advertisement Story continues below advertisement We complain about how little leisure time we have but we're humble-bragging, aren't we? The complaint that you don't have time is a way of showing your status.

  • What was your reaction to the women you interviewed who claimed their last speck of leisure time came when they read their toddler to sleep, or, seriously, the woman who said she experienced leisure during her last mammogram?
  • While most people see play as the domain of children, adults also play, although often their play is more entwined with rules and regulations, which calls into question how playful their play really is;
  • Story continues below advertisement Still, for all the kvetching about having no time, she contends the sickness is partly our own fault;
  • And that while technology was supposed to liberate us, it has instead created a sense of ceaseless responsibility and basically spelled the end of a truly work-free environment;
  • That kind of time and also time spent with other adults have really fallen off the cliff in the past 30 years, particularly for women;
  • Definition of Play Unlike leisure, play has a more singular definition.

If we aren't busy, we start getting nervous that maybe we aren't important. When you have a cultural value, you start to create it, to look for it. You start to fill your time with busyness. Time-use researchers talk about the "harried leisure class.

  1. What they choose to do in a day comes with that in mind, that they may not have that many days left. Sometimes our leisure is what some call "power leisure" — racing through activities, posting photos of the mad dash through the weekend on Facebook — competing in what leisure scholars call the "harried leisure class.
  2. Or at least establish a better work-life balance. Or just have your line manager on the phone wanting to discuss something that, in the past, could have waited until the following morning.
  3. The second requirement of leisure as state of mind, intrinsic motivation, means that the person is moved from within to participate.

I would question the quality of that leisure. What do North Americans tend to do with their free time? When we get a square of free time we're usually preoccupied and worried about the next thing we have to do, these laundry lists of stuff. That's how you get such huge TV-watching numbers in North America. We use our leisure to turn off rather than to prospectively choose to do something. True leisure requires freely choosing something. We're not really making anything of that time.

What was your reaction to the women you interviewed who claimed their last speck of leisure time came when they read their toddler to sleep, or, seriously, the woman who said she experienced leisure during her last mammogram? Did you buy it? To me this was an indication of, "Look how busy I am, I don't even have time for myself. I'm putting myself last. Aren't I a good woman? For mothers, they spend almost all of their leisure time with their children. Pure leisure time is considered time for yourself, time to refresh your soul, time to do what you choose for you.

That kind of time and also time spent with other adults have really fallen off the cliff in the past 30 years, particularly for women. If you have leisure time, it's usually spent on the sidelines of a soccer game or schlepping kids a discussion on work and leisure in america to music lessons or driving the carpool.

It's a very different quality of time. Story continues below advertisement Time research is a fairly young social science and when the early time-use researchers were dividing up activities and labelling them, they considered childcare to be leisure because they were men. They figured staying at home and playing with kids was fun. While there is an element of joy to it, anybody who's had to take care of kids for more than 10 minutes will tell you it's hard work.

It's rewarding and joyful, but it's work. Even though men are doing so much more at home now, women are still seen as in charge of the domestic sphere, which means that you have to keep all of that in your head. You've got what sociologists call contaminated time — stuff just going on in your head all of the time. You can be on a bike-ride with your family and you can be completely distracted so it doesn't feel very leisurely.

Library of Congress

Let's turn to tech. We know that it feels bad when your boss interrupts family dinner with e-mails, but what about when we voluntarily interrupt our own time using technology? When we tweet off the cottage deck or Instagram a restaurant meal? These are intrusions of our own making, no?

We are on the bleeding edge of so much technology that we don't really know how to use it yet. It doesn't feel refreshing. William Powers writes about this in his book Hamlet's BlackBerry. We've had breakthroughs in technology throughout human history when it feels like this ocean of new information is pouring in on you, and there is a general sense of overwhelm and distraction. Over time, you adapt to it and develop strategies for shutting it off and getting away from it.

Definitions of leisure, play, and recreation

Socrates would take a walk in the woods when he felt overwhelmed by the city, which at that time was itself a new technology. Today, people try to have technology sabbaths. There are black hole resorts where you can't get on Wi-fi.

I think over time — I'm hoping — we'll adapt and become smarter about how we use technology. It is using us right now. The dopamine kick that comes with a new Twitter follower or a "like" on Facebook — is that our new stupid brand of leisure? You can stay connected to people, learn things and be part of really interesting conversations on social media.

But I do feel there is an element of it that 'it's easy. If all you do is answer e-mail and get into that distracted, reactive cycle, what have you fallen into, and what have you chosen?

In defense of leisure

Tell me about the Danes, who seem to really understand leisure. To me, the Danes chapter was so instructive. In Denmark, work is focused but bounded with short, flexible work hours. Everybody values that work but not to the exclusion of everything else. They value sacred family time and gender equality, so much so that they have a minister of gender equality at the cabinet level.

Work and Leisure in the U.S. and Europe: Why So Different?

The whole country takes "catalogue classes" in areas that they're interested — "for the wisdom of humanity," is what they say. Leisure is a cultural value. Are the Danes less ambitious than North Americans?

I didn't see that they wanted to be slackers. They're highly educated and they want to do good work, but that's not the only thing they want, and they don't feel that their work suffers as a result. The most convincing piece of data to me came from the OECD.

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  • Leisure time is residual time.

The United States is highly productive, but we only count how many hours we spend at work. When you look at GDP per hours worked — how productive you are per hour — there are other countries that are more productive per hour.

How many good hours are there, and how many are you sitting in your chair because your boss values you being there, and you're conforming to the culture? There are a lot of assumptions that we make about ambition and doing good work that are very wrong-headed.

The 40-hour work week is an artifact of manufacturing workers: Henry Ford discovered that. We're knowledge workers now. We have no idea how far you can push a knowledge worker so that your brain is most effective.

Working in shorter pulses and taking breaks, we're realizing, you think more clearly and you're more productive. I fall into the trap of sitting at my desk until I am just literally a butt in a chair.

Old habits die hard and it goes back to, "Look at how busy I am. Look at how hard I'm working.

America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894-1915

I think Canadians heading to the cottage would consider themselves leisure experts. For people who escape to cottages in the woods or by the lake for the weekend, I say more power to them.

But I would ask a couple things about both the quantity and quality of that leisure time.