The Elusive Search For 'Golden Age of Leisure'

Utopia takes back seat to respect for work ethic

The shorter work-time movement is the latest update on a very old subject. Even Aristotle wrote, "We work in order to have leisure."

At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans were anticipating what Benjamin Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, calls "a golden age of leisure, where people would find values and opportunities outside of the economy - human values, such as time for family and community." Utopian books trumpeted the idea that six hours of work a day was reasonable. George Bernard Shaw even predicted that by 1980, people would be working two hours a day.

But then came what Professor Hunnicutt calls "the new economic gospel of consumption." Henry Ford argued that people should be taught "not to take additional leisure but to take new goods and services," he says. Businessmen turned out books with titles such as "The Threat of Leisure."

In the early 1930s, a bill for a 30-hour work week failed in Congress by a narrow margin. The standard 40-hour week became law in 1938.

Now, Hunnicutt says, "Work emerges as something very close to a religion, answering the traditional ultimate questions, such as who are you, and questions of identity. It is the way we find meaning in life."

As a result, leisure has been demeaned. "Instead of having time to be most human, we use it mostly for consumption and watching other people be active in sports. There's an emptying of this time, and the places associated with it, like porches, parks, living rooms."

Still, despite all the professed devotion to careers, he sees widespread dissatisfaction: "We expected work to liberate us, and that is failing us."

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