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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Whatever Happened To The Leisure Society?

Whatever Happened To The Leisure Society?

By Philip Ferguson
January 08, 2013

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of the biggest ideas
being talked about by liberal supporters of capitalism was ‘the
leisure society’.

Automation and the development of computers, people were told,
meant that what once took 40 or 50 or 60 hours to produce now
took much less time and soon would take so little that the work
week would get shorter and shorter.

Because the same, or even more, goods and services would be
produced, we could still get the same pay and be able to buy more
and more.

The big struggle we’d have would not be making ends meet or
trying to find time for leisure, but what on earth we’d do with
all our new leisure time.

Indeed, this idea of a leisure society had been discussed even
earlier, in fact right near the start of the Great Depression, by
the leading bourgeois economist of that era, John Maynard Keynes.

In a 1930 article, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”
Keynes had looked beyond the increasing economic difficulties,
mass unemployment and poverty of the Depression to a period
of dramatic recovery and improvement in the living conditions
of the masses.

He noted that from the period of several thousand years before
when Christ is supposed to have been born up until the early
1700s, living standards hadn’t changed much in what he called,
“the civilised centres of the earth”.

From the 1500s on, and especially the 1700s on, “the great age
of science and technical inventions began”, making it possible
to improve the living conditions of people, even while population
increased dramatically.

He estimated that within the lifetime of people of his own
generation, “we may be able to perform all the operations
of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of
the human effort to which we have been accustomed.”

He predicted that in 100 years, that is, by 2030, living standards
in the advanced capitalist countries would be, “between four and
eight times as high” as they were in 1930.

Indeed, he felt, “It would not be foolish to contemplate the
possibility of a far greater progress still.”

The Depression, he claimed, was a sort of blip which would be
overcome without too much trouble. Avarice and usury, “must
be our gods for a little longer still.”

However, what he called, “the economic problem” and defined as,
“the struggle for subsistence” which had gone on for thousands of
years, would be solved altogether by the time his generation’s
grandchildren reached adulthood.

At this time, he noted, a work week might consist of five shifts of
three hours!

“Thus,” he wrote, “for the first time since his creation man will be
faced with his real, his permanent problem, how to use his freedom
from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which
science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely
and agreeably and well.”

The future dread would not be the dread of want but the insecurity
of having so much leisure time that people wouldn’t know how to fill
it up.

Because people’s needs were being met and they could devote
time to things other than toil in a workplace, people would be
less obsessed about amassing money.

In this situation, “the love of money as a possession, as
distinguished from the love of money as a means to the
enjoyments and realities of life, will be recognised for
what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those
semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one
hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental health.”

Distasteful and unjust practices, which might be necessary to
accumulation of capital up until then, Keynes said, “we shall
then be free, at last, to discard.”

The years following Keynes’ essay saw a deepening of the
Depression and then a horrendous world war.

After that war, however, and largely due to it and the Depression,
the accumulation of capital could resume.

The postwar boom, which lasted until the early 1970s, saw a
massive expansion of production. Globally output grew several
times over.

Technological developments seemed, eventually, to confirm
Keynes’ optimism.

Leisure studies even emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s
as an academic discipline. At the end of the 1960s, right-wing
US president Richard Nixon declared “We are all Keynesians now”
and the leisure society became part of mainstream discourse.

In 1975, American sociologist Max Kaplan noted that in the United
States, “the normal extension of automation has reduced weekly
work hours roughly from 70 to 37 in the past century, almost four
hours per week less each decade; thus an additional reduction of
12 hours by the year 2000″.

He went on to make what he described as an, “oversimplified
projection” but one that was nevertheless, he felt, generally valid:
“with the help of computerization, the additional time off could be
five hours in the 1970s, six in the 1980s, and seven in the 1990s.
The result could be a workweek of 20 hours at century’s end.”

Yet the new discourse was barely established when the postwar
boom came to an end.

Economic stagnation and crisis quickly dominated discussion.
Mass unemployment returned.

Workers might have found they suddenly had plenty of leisure time,
but it was because they had been made jobless and wageless.

The struggle to make ends meet occupied workers’ minds, rather
than notions of the leisure society and how they’d fill up all the
leisure from a 15 hour work week for the same pay they’d previously
gotten for a 40-hour week.

Some workers who still had jobs found they had less hours and
less pay. Other workers found their work week lengthening.

The very problems of capitalism, which ensure that crises are
a regular part of the system, had returned with a vengeance.

In the four decades since, capitalism has been unable to generate a
new period of expansion in any way comparable to the long postwar

So the world of work today is far, far removed from Keynes’ 1930
optimism and from the superficial leisure society prognostications
of liberal sociologists and pundits in the late 1960s and very early

Last month, for instance, a leading recruitment agency, Randstad,
published a survey which showed that over 50% of New Zealanders
feel that their work and private lives cannot be separated.

Far from having a leisure society, or even a work-life balance,
the line between work and private time is well and truly blurred.

Randstad’s New Zealand director Paul Robinson told TV1’s Breakfast,
“I think this has huge significance and is definitely a trend that will
continue to grow.” Bosses, he said, have increased the pressure on
employees to prove their commitment by working outside of
their contracted hours.

Not only did 56% of the respondents find themselves doing this,
but 59% were getting emails and phone calls about work outside
their contracted hours.

Almost a third of workers stated that their bosses expected them
to be effectively on-call 24 hours a day seven days a week, while
60% said work dominated their lives.

Not surprisingly, 68% of the respondents said their pay didn’t match
their work performance and 54% said they would be up for emigrating
to get better pay and conditions.

The latest statistics indicate that in New Zealand there has been a
steady increase in the work week. So much so that 35.98% of men
working full-time worked 50 or more hours (308,079), while 18.77%
of women working full-time worked long hours (107,562).

Almost 16.5% of full-time male workers and almost 8.5% of full-time
female workers actually work more than 60 hours a week.

Over half of agricultural and fisheries workers and about 35% of
plant and machine operators and assemblers work more than
50 hours a week and a majority of both these groups working
more than 50 hours are actually doing more than 60 hours a week.

By far the largest number of male workers plus the largest number
of female workers work 40-49 hours week.

Instead of life getting easier, it’s getting more filled up with work.

Over a century after the achievement of the 40-hour week, most
workers are working more than 40 hours, while many other workers
are under-employed through being in part-time and insecure jobs on
low wages or are unemployed and struggling to get by on the measly
dole or some other benefit like the DPB.

In the United States, the richest capitalist country of all, Michael
Yates reports, “In 2008, half of working men 65 and older were
working full-time, up from 38 percent in 1994. For women, the
change was from 23 percent in 1994 to one third in 2008” and
that, “Surveys of those between 45 and 59 years of age indicate
that a very high share of both men and women expect to continue
working after they reach 65.

This share is more than double the fraction of those 65 and older
who are now working; therefore, the trend toward rising employment
among the elderly will almost certainly continue.”

In Spain, the retirement age has been raised to 67, and in Ireland
the Labour-Fine Gael coalition is raising at 7-year intervals from
2014, so it will be 68 in 2028.

One of the cruel ironies is that Keynes was actually right about the
technological capacity existing by now for us to have a 15 hour work
week and all have enough income to live well.

What he didn’t take into account, however, was that capital doesn’t
just develop technology; it continually throws obstacles in the way of
how that technology might be effectively used to better the lives of
everyone on the planet.

The development and spread of technology and its benefits is
constrained by the fact that, under capitalism, human need is
subordinated to private profit.

In this set-up, production and distribution are regulated by the
market, a mere thing, rather than by democratic and conscious
human planning.

The forces of production (which can expand, at least potentially,
to provide material abundance for all) are continuously held within
the limits of the social relations of production where the means of
production are privately-owned and operate on the basis of the
exploitation of workers by capitalists.

This contradiction is, in turn, the source of regular economic crises
in which workers’ pay and conditions are worsened and the rate
of exploitation is stepped up by the bosses as they try to get out
of crisis.

This requires them to make us work longer, harder, faster and for
relatively less.

Whereas the work week shortened substantially between the late
1800s and the mid-1900s, no such further reductions in working
hours have taken place.

The possibility of Kaplan’s 20-hour work week by the year 2000, let
alone Keynes’ 15-hour work week, are further away than they were
when those two people were writing.

So much for all the pooh-poohing of Marx as an outdated Victorian
era economist.

Indeed, in 1994 a look at work and exhaustion in New Zealand by the
TV1 current affairs programme Assignment noted that it now took 60
hours of work a week to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with one
based on 40 hours of work in the 1960s.

And so we come to the situation today where Labour, one of the two
main capitalist parties, wants to raise the retirement age, ensuring
that more of us work until we drop.

In the meantime, low pay, longer hours and less social mobility, and
more blurred lines between work time and personal time are the best
the system can do for us.

This is as good as it gets.

What happened to the leisure society?

Capitalism happened.

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