In the summer of 1930 the distinguished economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a century later, by 2030, we'd all be working fifteen hour weeks. That may have been a tad optimistic.
But given the pace of technological advance, many believe some version of Keynes’ prediction is inevitable. For example, one speculation has it that if present trends continue, over the next twenty years some one-third to one-half of our jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence and robotic manufacture.
Perhaps. Fortune telling is hazardous, and there is a long history of hysterical overreaction to technological change. Nonetheless, this time something is different. As the application of digital technology continues to widen, we have come to recognize its potentially huge range. Few jobs will be unaffected. Many types of cognitive work are as much at risk as manual labor.
Over time there will simply be less paid work for us to do. Of course not all work will disappear, but much of it will. And although the timeline may be uncertain, it seems more likely a matter of decades than of centuries.
Should we be worried? Yes and no.
We should be greatly concerned with the details of the political, economic, and social transition. The adjustment may well bring protracted strife. After all, this constitutes the most profound realignment since the industrial revolution, and opinions vary on how it will play out. How it will intersect with the related forces of economic inequality and oligarchic domination is particularly worrisome. Like many others, I suspect some version of universal basic income, or perhaps conditional basic income, will be part of the ongoing resolution.
How we make our money is one issue, but how we spend our time is another. Should we also be worried about that old maxim, the one claiming “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”? For those of us less tyrannized by the Protestant work ethic, the answer is: not so much.
Idleness refers to doing nothing, or at least nothing most would consider useful. It is not the focus of this piece, but it is worth noting that idleness is hardly the black hole it's made out to be. It has both positive and negative potential. In prolonged doses it can be emotionally problematic, but in briefer spans it can be just the opposite. It can be essential not only for rejuvenation, which everyone understands, but also for the quiet emergence of self understanding and creativity, which many overlook.
For the years ahead however it is not idleness, but rather leisure that is the most relevant matter. Leisure refers to “freedom from demands of work or duty”, or in a more general sense, “unhurried ease”. If you are without leisure, you must do something required by someone or something else, and you must do it within a specified time. Leisure means the absence of demands and deadlines.
It can overlap with idleness, but it is not the same thing by any means. Depending on a person’s mood and circumstances, leisure can be, and frequently is, extraordinarily active. And in various senses of the term, productive as well.
It is not uncommon during the course of leisure for one to become intensely engaged with an intellectual, artistic, or recreational pursuit. And, despite the absence of remuneration or fame, to find it deeply rewarding. I imagine you can think of several examples from your life. For me, the writing of this little essay is itself such an example.
However in the West, particularly in America, views of leisure are mixed. Yes, it has obvious attractions, but it also has a disagreeable odor: the unmistakable whiff of aristocratic indolence. In fact, among those who have come to replace aristocrats--that is, our highly educated meritocratic elite--long hours have become a badge of honor, something that helps define their worth. But as technological forces carve out more leisure for larger numbers of people, this attitude may shift.
Assuming we do not destroy ourselves in a turbulent transition, the coming expansion of leisure could represent a milestone in the history of human freedom and self-actualization. Freedom, because we will have more opportunity to slide in and out of focused activity, as we choose. Self-actualization, because those activities will more likely resonate with our skills and interests, regardless of their marketability. For many people increased leisure could well promise more meaning, not less.
Lofty sentiments, perhaps. But benefits seem likely at more mundane levels as well. Reduction of hours spent working for a living will likely translate into less stress, on the one hand, and more socialization, on the other. Both of which, it’s reasonable to speculate, might have benefits for our collective physical and mental health.
We must not shrink from the coming transition, but neither can we take it for granted. People will vary in their capacity to find large amounts of leisure rewarding. Many may find it rather difficult, and we must prepare them for it as best we can. Such preparation will undoubtedly involve effort on a variety of fronts, including both governmental policies and private initiatives. And not all approaches will be helpful for all persons.
Answers might come from unexpected directions. For example, one small segment of the population--a group dear to my heart--might respond to this brave new world by digging back into what some consider the dustbin of history: the humanities.
The exodus is well known: for the last forty years, in response to the oppressive neoliberal zeitgeist, students have fled the humanities in droves, favoring the more technical, possibly more remunerative disciplines. But as the technical becomes increasingly the province of AI, the humanities might reclaim some humans. Philosophy, history, literature, art, music and so on might well step into the yawning chasm of our newfound leisure.
It could be a counterforce in a hypertechnical, relentlessly commodified culture. Perhaps, just perhaps, these disciplines might help more people, young and old alike, experience the joy, awe, and compassion that flows from wider and more thoughtful perspectives on the human condition.
If so, that would be leisure time well spent.