How free was my leisure…

In the 20th century, we were promised inventions that guaranteed more free time. In the 21st century, we find we are working harder in our leisure. Doing what, and why?

leisure time

When we work for money, we actually work to buy empty time. At the start of the 20th century, a 100 years past the Industrial Revolution, this much was evident — the incentive to work was wealth, yes; but the point of wealth was leisure. 

Writing the Soul of London (1905), Ford Madox Ford cut through the pea-soup of starry-eyed dreams and sentiment that drew the proletariat from the countryside into the smelly, smoky, squalid city, stating the bottomline thus: ‘the wealth of London has to be gained by work, and this fortress of the leisured class remains as a lure… because wealth means leisure...’ 

Across the pond in America, Congress had already passed an eight-hour day for government employees. The Age of Technology promised less work and more play for all to be able to afford the tech. So we arrived at peak consumerism in the last globalised decades of the 20th century, where purchase on credit (that egalitarian EMI!) became common.

The 21st century consequently turned leisure on its head. Suddenly, we had a new socioeconomic dichotomy: those who were ‘successful’ at leisure and those who were mere laze-abouters. The Millennials became the side-hustle generation, to fund the material ingredients of their ‘leisure’, fast fashion, social calendars full of eating out, movies — and after-work classes to help us enjoy ourselves better, harder, more productively. 

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It meant upward mobility, yes. But the 40-hour work week hammered out by labour laws fizzed like over-fermented dosa batter — till it all soured. Leisure declined by an hour in America from 1985 to 2007; for some, work rose by 2.5 hours. Mumbaikars in 2018 worked 3,315 hours annually, to Parisians’ 1,600 average. Flexi-timing and telecommuting pressed us to use the ‘saved commute’ for more work. The deflating hours of leisure grew ‘productive’, as we crafted, cooked, carpent-ed, coded, curated collections — and Instagrammed our skills for popular (monetised) consumption. Eight hours’ restorative sleep was smashed to a suggestion. Leisure became more and more… like work. Leisure-on-show became a competition. 

Cut to the contemporary, and several of my friends and colleagues have upskilled the side hustles and hobbies into alternative careers, economic safety nets. There’s an investment banker studying brewery science; a psychologist nurturing sourdough out of watermelon rind; a teacher turned citizen journalist to chronicle our strange and interesting times; a journalist turned online tutor; a videographer in the pickling trade; and one who ran a cookery class turned to social-media marketing. 

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Several in my social network have an average of three side hustles, or at least, cost-saving hobbies — A/C repair, bike customisation, website, animation or graphic design, translating, transcribing, subtitling, food styling, baking, sleep training (for babies), certificates in nutrition and mental health, yoga and Zumba, composting, tailoring, urban farming…. In the blogosphere, influencers are packaging formerly-free content into e-books for purchase. 

In response, I notice, a smaller subset have dug in our heels and decided to slow the eff down. Some are asking why life has to be an ever-upward climb. Why can life not be a gentle drift through time instead of a rat-race? Some of us are going back to basics — think Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Food and odes to a rustic chokha, rather than cordon-bleu home-cheffing a la Masterchef; think shank’s mare over super-SUV; think digital detox over device envy. Some have slimmed down our social presence — it’s hard to sleep with someone watching! 

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In the 21st-century, then, the rich are still the most leisured — but many leisure-rich persons are minimalists who stepped off the conveyor belt, rediscovering the maxim ‘less is more’. Still, competition continues — books read, hours off-road-rambled, whittled wardrobes, and closeness-to-zero of waste jars become yardsticks of success.

As for me, I’m not quite there yet, with my horror of homeschooling and my middle-class trappings, with debts to clear and an uneasy living to earn. Intriguingly, though, I’m discovering that I am richer in actual leisure than many productive peers. Happiness, I am finding, is sometimes the opposite of success.

(Manidipa Mandal is a freelance writer and editor, who loves to eat, drink, travel, read-and criticise. So Manidipa decided to make a career (or three) of them)

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