It used to be simple: we worked to pay the bills and secure in turn the freedom to enjoy life outside work. In this age of unprecedented connectivity, efficiency and flexibility at work, we should be enjoying the ultimate era of leisure. The reality is very different: for all the myriad joys of technology, somehow, in the 21st century, leisure has become a scarce commodity.
The Romans had it right: otium (leisure) was so integral to life that all business was classed as negotium (not-leisure); to be active (impiger) was to be not-inactive (piger). Though laziness was despised, leisure productively spent (otium negotiosum) enthused the Middle Ages. For most of British history, leisure was the preserve of the elite. But, in the 19th century, mechanised manufacturing, improved travel networks and earnest social reform pared back inhumane working hours, ushering in a new era of leisure pursuits and amateur sports. By the 1940s, the eight-hour day and five-day week were de rigueur, and leisure time was communally observed. Yet the astoundingly rapid and transformative technological progress of recent decades hasn’t helped whittle down the working day, but has instead let it dictate more of our lives than ever.
Yes, the convenience and versatility of digital technology frees up time: correspondence criss-crosses the globe in milliseconds and infinite information is accessed by finger-trill. But any time saved is instantly reallocated to further work. Employers eagerly offer digital devices to their staff, knowing that the short-term cost is paid off by long-term working hours. Emails arrive at all hours via laptop, tablet, smartphone, which most of us unthinkingly deal with whenever – and wherever – they come. And so the boundaries of the workplace become ever fuzzier, the work-life balance unsteadier.
For many workers, faced with a flat wage and no prospect of promotion, the most valuable and desirable commodity is time. But salaries are taken in pounds, not hours. Amidst this struggle to eke out free time, most traditional modes of leisure have suffered a significant shift. They are no longer enjoyed absolutely in their own space, but are consumed incidentally as tools of distraction – to palliate the monotony of the commute, to mollify the pain of the treadmill, or even to relieve the tedium of talk.
The alluring convenience of multitasking dilutes the true value of leisure in isolation. Take some typical leisure activities. Film of course remains popular, but with many people priced out of the cinema or stymied by their closure, movies are shoehorned onto tiny screens and squinted at spasmodically: it is little surprise that sales have flatlined. Music is consumed almost entirely as background noise, effortlessly sourced but contextually bland, as intangible singles float in isolation amidst the digital stream. Sport remains thrilling excitement to play, but ever more determination and ingenuity are required to find opportunities for participation. As for watching it on screen, that’s an experience interrupted by incessant adverts for inane dross or Iagoesque incitements to bet on increasingly absurd minutiae, monetising pleasures that transcend profit. Stuck for fresh ideas, leisure has found refuge in both the television and the inexorable desire to eat: cooking, baking and dining shows enjoy more popularity than ever.
Leisure is threatened not just by work creep and email overexposure, but also by the encroachment of social media. Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts, crafted and curated with mindboggling exactitude, agitate for unconditioned likes and sterile emoticons. Smartphones are checked hundreds of times a day (and night): this is not leisure but the panic reflex of captives. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a self-fulfilling condition: burying your head in the digital sands is a sure-fire means to MO. Unless daringly turned off, smartphones not only fragment leisure time but ward off real social engagement, offering a hand-held safe space that plays on loop the reassuring muzak of a bespoke echo chamber. Attention spans too have atrophied in the Age of Twitter: a short-termist audience readily dismisses detailed discussions with the dreaded acronym “tldr”: too long, didn’t read.
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Reading, of course, is not dead, but its context has also shifted. Books are digested increasingly piecemeal and in transit via Kindles-and-co. These bitesize bursts, constantly disturbed by other digital distractions, necessarily limit immersion in any text. Newspapers and periodicals are mostly consumed digitally and story-specifically rather than opened and closed on the editor’s terms. Such fleeting, open-ended consumption amidst the infinite online void withholds the satisfaction of closure that finishing a physical magazine or returning a book to the shelf can give. It’s no surprise that simple tasks offering a palpable conclusion have regained popularity: the craze for sudoku and adult colouring-in books will doubtless be followed by jigsaw puzzles or sticker collecting. More remarkably, amidst such inescapable and frenetic distraction, “mindfulness” has won devotees. In previous decades we called this thinking.
As for conversation, one of life’s most leisurely pleasures, technology again limits rather than facilitates it. Online exchanges more often descend into staccato argument or posturing than flourish into the spontaneous quirkiness of personal conversation. Yet – as pathetic as it sounds – it’s now harder than ever to converse, an art in which both experience and opportunity are waning. Yes, discussion still thrives over the pint or wine bottle – less so the vodka shot and Jägerbomb – but even the inimitable warmth of the pub has become a challenging space for leisure, a battle for focus amidst piped music, vibrating phones and virtue-signalling condiments.
The most hackneyed adage remains the truest: the best things in life are free – or trivial in cost. The leisure afforded by the great outdoors is and always will be incomparable – although it’s an outrageous development that the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park will now charge campers to enjoy nature. The company of friends and family has the profoundest value, but time available for this varies desperately between age groups, class brackets and pay scales. Indeed, the much-maligned millionaire banker who trudges from dawn to dusk – and scarcely sees his family or home in daylight – is more to be pitied than envied.
What then to give leisure a new lease of life? The answer can’t be the infantile introduction of “playtime” to the workspace. Perhaps instead the reach of work could be pruned back? Take France, where since January companies employing more than 50 workers must declare times when their staff can clock off from digital communication. Could Britain follow suit with some sort of top-down messaging curfew? Or would employees’ FOBO (fear of being overtaken) break the system?
At any rate, a reality check is due. We con ourselves that immersive technology promotes, rather than obstructs and obscures, leisure. Amidst the transient presentism of online blather, it – along with other intrinsic values of culture and society – are being lost in the fug. Leisure, whatever form it takes, is life-affirming activity: it needs both the space and time to be taken seriously.
Dr David Butterfield is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge.