Saturday, August 18, 2012

Do we need more leisure time?

One of the more gentrified opinions that got lost in the miasma of early twentieth century ideas was that the future, with the shimmering advent of automatons, would lead to a massive jump in leisure time for most people.  Keynes was one proponent.

This ignored slightly the fact that human desire is close to infinite, and that any gold-toothed marketeer can genie a need out of the waking air.  Economists have consistently argued that the idea of automatons taking jobs from people was all cool, because that just frees them to do other, more creative things.  You know, like, yeah...  I disagree with this, and agree with Tyler Cowen in arguing that automatons will result in a fixed rise in unemployment.

But lets assume that it all happens fine and dandy, and automatons take over, leaving us with twenty hour work-weeks and a black hole of time, cold time, to fill.  What then?

Robert Posner takes issue with a  book by the father-son economist-philosopher duo Robert and Edward Skidelsky, who argue that we should be actively birthing a world of very short work-weeks.  Posner dives straight at the most interesting point, a point (he says) that is dealt with only in passing by the authors.  What would people do with this new bundle of free and joyous time?

In a strange, almost onionised, couple of sentences, the pair state (per Posner) the following:

“The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.... [other leisure activities:] playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends”

For two respected intellectuals to state something like that is quite shocking, no?  I am taking Posner at his word on this, because I have not read the book in detail, but wow.  Does the silent and shady world of Don-dom really cause such insularity?  Marble cutting, really?

In fact, studies of unemployment have shown that when given more free time people actually do less extra-ciricular activites than before.  I cannot find the precise link, but it was a study on libary use, sporting participation etc.  One reason is monetary - beyond sitting in the sun, leisure has a price.  Another is motivational.  Without some clear purpose in life, at least one visible path, everything else kind of gets discarded, and the scaffolding of ones week falls apart.  In a variant on an old CS Lewis quote, 'when you aim for x, you get everything else 'thrown in'.  

Perhaps western society has, even at this point, moved too far toward a leisure economy.  Output has reversed, and moled instelf into the fold of our brain.  Our best minds spend their work days trying to get you to click on internet ads rather than charting a course to the stars.   And this, it turns out, is what we really want, and like.  

It turns on the question - do most people prefer consumption to creation?  And what ratio of the two would apply in Skidelsky's leisureland?

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