In the summer of 1930 the distinguished economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a century later, by 2030, we’d be working fifteen hour weeks. That may have been a tad optimistic.
But eventually some version of Keynes’ prediction seems inevitable. Analysts speculate that if current trends continue, over just the next twenty years some one-third to one-half of our jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence and robotic manufacture. Cognitive work is as much at risk as manual labor. No matter how we try to spin it, there will simply be less paid work for us to do.
Should we be worried? Yes and no.
We should be greatly concerned with the details of the political, economic, and social transition. The adjustment will assuredly be fraught with 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 forces of economic inequality and oligarchic domination is particularly worrisome. Like many others, I suspect some version of universal basic income will eventually be part of the complicated and ongoing resolution.
As always, the devil will be in the details. But speaking of the devil, should we also be worried about that other bromide, 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 has both positive and negative potential. In prolonged doses it can be emotionally problematic. But in briefer spans it can be essential not only for rejuvenation, but also for the quiet emergence of self understanding and creativity.
Still, all of this is not the point. For the years ahead it is leisure, rather than idleness, that is the crux of the 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.
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. And if so, this need not signal a descent into catatonic sloth.
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.
Assuming we do not destroy ourselves in the 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. Ultimately, increased leisure promises 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. Certainly, people will vary in their capacity to find leisure rewarding, and we must prepare them for it as best we can. Such preparation will undoubtedly involve effort on a variety of fronts, and not all approaches will be helpful for all persons.
But for one segment of the population, a useful strategy for meeting this brave new world might be digging 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.