Fun: new priority for Americans

Polls show a shift in attitude: More people see leisure as the end goal of work.

As Americans partake of their Labor Day rituals this weekend - barbecues, hammock naps, or trips to see relatives - some might notice that such leisure activities have become a little more common in their lives, and are certainly more common than in their parents' or grandparents' days.

It's part of a tectonic cultural shift in how the nation balances labor and leisure. That age-old struggle between the Puritan work ethic and the desire to hit the beach is increasingly resolved in favor of a day in the sun.

Partly, it's just a generational perception: Haven't grandpas always thought they had it harder, recalling trips to and from school (uphill both ways, of course) in blustery blizzards?

Yet, there's a change in reality, too. Frustration with jobs and a desire to maximize "meaning" or "health and wellness" are driving more people to emphasize leisure.

Indeed, America's "ethic of fun" has been expanding since the 1950s, according to pollsters. But it's had a big boost in recent years from a new emphasis on overall "wellness" and "meaning."

"Leisure is being increasingly thought of as related to health - and, therefore, people may feel obligated to get some free time," says Geoffrey Godbey, a leisure-studies professor at Penn State University in University Park.

Also bolstering the trend is America's ever-growing economy (despite current doldrums) and technology, like the Internet and cellphones, which allow people to abandon cubicles but stay connected to work.

While some worry it represents the "softening" of America and heralds the nation's economic demise, others see it as a natural evolution from concern about physical survival to mental or spiritual nourishment.

Getting priorities straight

Regardless, "the trend is headed in the direction of people either seeking a better balance between work and leisure, or leisure being a top priority," says Professor Godbey.

Poll numbers hint at the change.

The attitude that "work is the important thing, and the purpose of leisure time is to recharge people's batteries so they can do a better job," is fading from American life. In 1975, 48 percent of Americans agreed with it; by 2000, only 34 percent did.

Meanwhile, support for the idea that "leisure time is the important thing" - and that the purpose of work is to make leisure possible - grew from 36 percent in 1975 to 43 percent in 2000, according to Roper Starch Worldwide.

The trend is especially evident among different generations. Consider Jimmy Balis and his son, Christos.

The elder Mr. Balis arrived as a teenager in America from his native Greece in 1956. After working as a hotel bellboy in Connecticut - and serving the likes of Louis Armstrong - he started launching his own businesses. Today, he owns several small firms, including the Pizza Palace in Enfield, Conn., complete with karaoke bar and video games.

"What's that - leisure?" he asks facetiously, in his clipped Greek accent. "For many years, I didn't take no vacations," he says proudly. His 16-hour days were focused on moving up: "You can't go nowhere, if you're not working - that's the American way."

As for his kids' generation, "They don't take life serious," he says.

Then there's his son's approach to life. The tall acupuncturist with an easy smile usually schedules appointments at his Alexandria, Va., office no earlier than noon. And the No. 1 rule around his clinic is: "I get to have fun."

But his fun is not just self-indulgent, he insists: "When I'm having fun, you're having fun - and fun and humor are hallmarks of healing."

For instance, Christos asks clients with back trouble to think of times when they don't feel pain. Typically, they mention they tell him it's when they're dancing or holding their grandkids. So he tells them to take dance lessons or see their family more. "They're dealing with the relationship between work and leisure," he says. "You've got to have fun," he adds. "There's got to be a part of your spirit that feels honored." That, he says, can impact a person's health.

Of course, people define leisure differently. To some, it means a longer vacation in Hawaii. To others, it means rebalancing work and family priorities, retiring early, or bringing newfound fun and passion to the workplace.

Most, however, are in search of something that work increasingly fails to offer. The recent emphasis on productivity leaves less room for creativity and passion, says Godbey. "For many people, work is being increasingly controlled, monitored, measured, and squeezed, so leisure is associated with getting to what is 'real.' It's the way they seek 'meaning.' "

Moreover, employees have more flexibility in a technology-driven economy, than they did, say, during the Industrial Age, when everyone had to be on the assembly line at the same time to make things run.

"It used to be that people didn't leave the office at 2 p.m. on Thursday to go work out," Godbey says. Now, thanks to technology and flexible work schedules they can. (Although they're often expected to be on call 24/7.) It's all leading, Godbey says, to the "customization" of daily life.

Era of the customized life

Ginger Greenstein has started customizing her days. She and her husband recently moved into what used to be called a "retirement village," but is now an "active-adult community." Their custom-built townhouse in The Riviera at Westlake in Jackson, N.J., is a dream home.

Like Mrs. Greenstein, about one-third of people moving into such places across the country still have jobs. (She works for a software manufacturer.) But they want to boost the quality and quantity of their leisure time. Greenstein certainly has.

"Sometimes I feel like I live at camp," she says. "There are all these fliers on the fridge about different activities." She has joined a book group, and plans to take an oil-painting class.

Whether it's oil-painting classes or acupuncture, back at the Pizza Palace, Balis dismisses these kinds of activities as frivolous. "But, OK," he says, allowing that the younger people should chase their dreams - just as he did. "If you got a dream, you go after it," he says. In America, "that's what you do."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.