Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Leisure ethic and society.

August is upon us, with its langourous days... the 90 degree weather sapping our drive and making us seek shelter in air-conditioned rooms or in the chlorinated waters of the neighborhood pool. For me, the beginning of August is a reminder that another season of liberation is about to end, and I must once again join the rank-and-file of our hustling workforce. As any honest public school educator will tell you, the joys of summer break are multitudinous and full of possibilities. I live for this time of year, and inevitably experience a deep sorrow at its passing.

However, I do know better than to complain to the rest of society about the end of summer. I realize that the majority of Americans are lucky to have two weeks of vacation a year. In Europe, fixed employment comes with an average paid annual leave of four-to-six weeks. But the US is saddled with the tradition of the Protestant work ethic, which tells us that "idle hands are the devil's playthings". We have John Calvin to thank for this. He believed that to work hard is to serve God. He also believed that we shouldn't try to change the profession into which we are born, because God has assigned us to our place in the social hierarchy. If you were a ditch-digger, you held this position due to God's will, and you should express your will to serve Him by putting all your energy into this toil. Does this sound especially "democratic" to you? Calvinism is the real ideal that our country was founded on, and it is the exact opposite of "freedom". But it sure as hell does drive the economy.

So perhaps it is un-American of me to suggest that our society needs to develop a "leisure ethic". I have too often heard from people that they wouldn't know what to do with their time if they had summers off. Folks ask me whether or not I work during the break, and are shocked that I have no interest in doing so. That's blatant evidence for the efficiency and depth of the programming of our society. Americans are conditioned to feel lost when they face a large chunk of free-time. How many times have you heard stories of retirees who just can't seem to figure out "what to do with themselves"? I think that's tragic. Is working for someone else truly the good citizen's raison d'etre? And why do you think this is so?

If freed from work, would the average American go crazy, and release his/her id in an explosion of debauchery? Or is it just that they might question the system if given time to think? Could it possibly be that they might be able to add value to our civilization? Self-actualization requires resources of time and energy. If someone is overburdened with the responsibilties of work, family and home, than they are trapped in a cycle that will eventually wear them down to nothing. What does a drone do besides provide animal labor?

Yet when faced with the possibility of free time, many choose to work overtime in order to "get ahead". Get ahead of what? By what standard does this advance them? They are simply more able to buy things that they won't have time to enjoy. But they will continue to do it because that is the standard by which we are valued in our society. By dint of hard work, we make a more virtuous and prosperous country... right? I wonder what would happen if we spent that time on self-improvement of the non-material type. Or alternatively, would it not benefit our community if we spent the time with our loved ones? By my reckoning, one of the strangest creatures in the human spectrum is the "workaholic". It is such a strangely obsessive disease. And it leads to amounts of stress that overwhelm physical, mental, and spiritual health.

The treatment I would prescribe is a refinement of one's "leisure ethic". This requires fiscal discipline, a rejection of wanton consumerism, personal reflection, and a true knowledge of oneself. What are the things that you enjoy doing... things that in some way add value to your own develoment? Forget the vicarious thrills and escapism of bad television. Reject the chemicals that artficially eliminate your inhibitions... that allow you to "blow off steam" at night, only to compound the problems you face in the morning. Above all, it's necessary to purposefully and thoroughly examine the way you spend your time. The easiest justification to avoid changing your outlook is that you simply can't find the time. But that begs the question... is work your entire identity? Are you comfortable with that reality? What are you willing to sacrifice to discover if there is an alternative?

I don't mean to suggest that any of this is easy. As I said, our society does not value "leisure ethic"... indeed the prevailing view is that if we encourage more "idle time", then our society will descend into hell. There are many obstacles, perceived and real, to keep us from challenging this myth. The goal is to be able to determine which are real obstacles, and find ways to overcome them.


Anonymous jefg said...

Some random and not-so-random thoughts regarding your call for more, and better use of, leisure time by reducing work requirements. That is, my observations about your observations.

First, I am a big believer in achieving work-life balance in your own way. Any of the comments that follow which in your mind would indicate otherwise should be summarily dismissed. In other words, this is presented in argumentative style because frankly, that’s the mood I was in when I read the post.

Mostly, your post sounds like a call to move to achieving “work-life balance” by directing less time at work. Work-life balance is an extremely popular topic in corporate management today, one of the latest buzz-words (or buzz-phrases). It isn’t new, but talked about more than ever. The topic began its popularity in the 90’s, an overdue reaction to the number of women in the workforce, whether from choice or out of necessity. While many women did work in the 40’s (due to the demands of war-time production), 50’s and 60’s, the two-worker family was not the norm. Women were taking care of the chores of home and family, men were off to work their 40-hour weeks. With a growing number women working full-time, the other responsibilities did not magically go away. For the most part, males in society have always considered themselves the breadwinner (as a result of a disparity in pay), and did not feel obliged to equally share the load at home. The result was a new workforce of women that were truly overburdened. This phenomenon has been there, but finally achieved recognition in print and discussion, leading to the call for “work-life balance”. In my humble opinion, it was not meant (nor needed) to describe the need for males working 40-hours a week to more appropriately responsibilities at (and to) work, and at home or leisure.

Let’s do the math…there are 8,766 hours in a year. Persons working 40-hour work weeks, with the average three weeks off, work a total work-year of 1,960 hours. In fact, the OCED calculated that in 2004 the average work year for Americans was 1,777 hours. Apparently, but without detailed analysis, there must be a number of Americans working less than 1,960 hours (perhaps they might have their summers off or something….dunno). Using the 1,960, that equates to working 22% of one’s work-life hours. If they sleep seven hours a night (2,557), eat two hours a day (730) and drive a hour to work (240) that leaves 3,279 hours a year, and average of nine hours per day of non-work life to allocate. Just how many stones do we have to remove from the work side of the scale to achieve the “desired” balance?

And with that, there is no time to think? Really?

You mention France as an example of a culture that values this balance differently. The same OCED study has France with an average work year of 1,346 hours, with mandated vacation periods minimums and a 35-hour work week. Have you ever tried to get service of any sort in France in August? I think not. Then again, neither have I, but I’ve heard that it’s near impossible. Do you believe the lowering of work-hours was a choice made for the mental and physical health benefits of more leisure time, as an outcry for better public health? In fact, it was a result of tough economic times in the 70’s, when oil shortages and other factors were resulting in shutdowns and layoffs. It was the unions, knowing they could not achieve higher wages, that opted for bargaining fewer hours in lieu of thatin an effort to preserve jobs. It was both collective bargaining contracts and government regulations. Is that preferable to a free-market economy? From an economic perspective (remember, that was my degree eons ago), there is some danger in forcing involuntary leisure time such as done in France and other parts of Europe). In the long run, the less work that gets done, the less work there is to do.

Heck, in the 1850’s, the average work-year in America was more than 3,000 hours (the study I saw was 3,150 to 3,500, so I chose conservative reporting). In 1987 it was down to 1,949 hours.

You reference France (as well as Western Europe) as an example when you address desired work/life balance. Why not China? Why not Japan? Why not Eastern Europe? What makes one cultural expectations for work better than others? Are there fewer well-balanced people in those countries? Does that make France right? (opening for further commentary here, but generalizing about people from a certain country would border on comic-relief).

Somewhat disturbing (to someone who has spent their life on the management side), are the references to work as a form of slavery. That seems to be the context of your opinion on work. Your use of terms such as “if freed from work” and “another season of liberation” clearly imply your view of work as one of life’s necessary evils. It appears you view workers as down-trodden and repressed by a Putiran-based society, and evil burden foisted upon all of us. You may truly view it as that, but collective productive work is a necessary part of life, everywhere, in every country, in every form of economy, from commune to mature industrialized. Every individual, free to chose what they decide to produce, if anything, would leave me without my new Dell 160 gig HD, and that would simply be a very bad thing.

Do you really believe that people believe today that there is any connection between working and serving God, and carry-over from hundreds of years ago, or see any connection with that and their current work ethic or that of society as a whole? Try interviewing 100 people and seeing if they see any connection. It has got to be much more self-serving than that.

Disclaimer - I am not a workaholic, and never have been. I am a believer in having jobs that do not regularly REQUIRE more than 40-hours per week. If it does, it should likely be restructured. On the other hand, work energized me daily.

Also as a disclaimer, I do not fit into your generalization that “Americans are conditioned to feel lost with a large black of free time”. I’m quite content with large blocks of free time, or any blocks of free time for that matter, as most of family, friends and co-workers. Obvioulsy I haven’t taken well to conditioning.

You call the workaholic “one of the strangest creatures”. That may be because you know so few of them. Actually, there are relatively few of them around. In my experience, I actually know only two people (other than casual acquaintances) I would call true workaholics. Two are female, one male. I believe women in management, as well as outside of management, have to work harder and smarter than men to get to the same place. I truly believe that, and research bears it out as well. All three thrive in their work. Only one of the three has what I would judge to be ideal work life balances. They might see it differently, however. I don’t walk in their shoes, and as long as it doesn’t affect me negatively, not my place to judge anyway. It takes all types to make the world go round.

You seem to be striking out at people who work long hours. There would seem to be any number of reasons why people work long hours. First, they may need the money for necessities. Second, they may want the extra money for things, or to put aside. Third, they may be “forced” to work the extra hours by their employer’s situation (or greed). Fourth, they may be in a position where it is expected. Fifth, they may simply enjoy their work and be stimulated by it. Sixth, they may have set goals for themselves and want to achieve them. Seventh, they may feel that in their hard work they are contributing to society through their work, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. So, which of these are bad things? Or, do you lump them all together as “strange creatures”? Sometimes its choice, sometimes it’s not. Strange as it may seem in the context of your experiences, there are individuals who work 50-60 hours a week because they are enthusiastic about their job, resulting in more positive stressors than negative ones. It’s not automatically a cause for intervention or corrective action. If it’s not voluntary, that does beg the question, but the answer is not always black and white. Of course, for many people in jobs where they are at the limit of advancement, it’s simpler. Lucky for you and I, we have had that choice.

There is little doubt in my mind that many of the differences result from being in a different generation. There are many who think that most of younger generation do not want to work at all, and would prefer having everything just handed to them (why not, it’s already there?”). Rather, sit around all day and watch movies or playing video games or sitting around discussing concepts (whether idle chat or otherwise). We see so many who believe that they deserve things just for being born, and expect to get them from their parents or from society without any input from their part. Those that do work, albeit a minority, see work time as a time to do non-work things (phones, games, conversation, e-mail, chatrooms); the result, less productivity in the same 40 hour week. Let’s just say that there are a lot of people getting paid for 40 hours, but only working 20-30 hours for their pay.

I recall a term from Economics, “satisficing”. Coined in 1957, in Economics it refers to “behavior which attempts to achieve some level of particular outcome, but does not strive to achieve its maximum possible value”. That is, “good-enough”. People tend to work to a level which is good enough, to produce a product or service good-enough, which will appease the owners as good-enough. It’s about satisficing versus maximizing. I’ve thought about and used that term many times in my career. I think you have to be cognizant of the consequences of good-enough. Perhaps it’s all today’s society expects or demands from themselves or others. It could speak to their desired levels of happiness, success, acquiring things, study habits, etc. Just as acquiring more is a choice, living with less is also a choice. Perhaps I’m guilty of that as well. Perhaps it’s not such an incidious thing; then again,…

[Note: Philosophically, the term refers to people relaxing their rationality when it is no longer required, or bounded rationality. Interesting for further thought]

OK, I’ll say it…thank god for some workaholics. True workaholics tend to be those who are best workers, best managers, best doctors, best scientists, best administrative assistants, best car mechanics. If they didn’t work the long hours they do, we would be without the results of some of their efforts. Some of them are purpose-driven. Some of them have organized their lives to limit responsibilities at home. Some of them handle work stressors in a positive way. Some of them could actually be called heroes for contributing to the quality of our lives. People have to determine what is important for themselves, and then consider the impact on others.

Some final observations…
When you say you live for this time of year (non-working summers), it appear to be that it’s because your work-life balance has become 0%/100%. What kind of work-life balance is that? here
You see work-life balance as promoting health? What are you choices to de-stress?
Do you drink? Do you smoke? Do you exercise?
Lastly, I wonder if you wrote this more to garner a reaction, or to defend your own personal motivations, beliefs and life-style.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I included within my post a comparison to other nations... but I'm not sure where you got the idea that I mentioned France. I did write "Europe". France is the bogeyman of the conservative... so I guess I'm not surprised you are seeing things that aren't there (that's just a joke... doesn't actually apply to YOU).

I believe I wrote the post in a way that suggests that one should be more deliberate about spending whatever free time they have, and making more of it in whatever manner that they can. If you re-read my post, I believe you will find an acknowledgement that there are real obstacles people experience in their lives (check out my closing paragraph again). It didn't seem to me that I was judging people in a black-and-white manner, but rather simply proposing an alternative perspective to counterbalance a pervasive viewpoint of our society...

You wrote...

"In the long run, the less work that gets done, the less work there is to do."

Thanks for this axiom. I hope my wife believes me when I suggest this next time she wants me to do something around the house. Ah... the clear and analytical thinking of the "free-market".

I actually can't argue for or against something that has never existed in reality, so I'll just leave the discussion of "free-markets" to the theoretical world of the economics professors.

You wrote...

"Do you really believe that people believe today that there is any connection between working and serving God (...)?"

I believe, as I said, that this is the tradition upon which this country was formed. Whether the majority of Americans realize that this is how the American view of work (and as an extension- life) formed really isn't within the purview of my post.

You and I have created the context that have allowed us to access the work situations that we are in. Are we lucky? Sure... but luck is a very relativistic concept. Neither you or I were born into our professions. I have no problem allowing others to make their own choices where and when the effects of those choices don't impinge upon my opportunities.

It seems that any attempt to focus on leisure time is viewed by a certain group as an attack on work. Just because I value my leisure time does not mean that I don't invest my energy usefully while I am at work.

The whole concept of "work-life balance" seems to me to be arbitrarily simplistic.

I have a problem with the assumption that value isn't created through leisure time. The truth is that many people, when left to their own devices, do indeed create products that others can benefit from.

Perhaps too I am employing the word "leisure" in a non-traditional way, and that is eliciting such resistance. I am using it to refer to those ways we choose to spend our time when we have a choice. A small percentage in our society would choose to do what they do in their profession- even if they didn't need the money that they receive in return. Obviously, much of what I am saying would simply not apply to them.

And yes... of course I wrote this post to elicit discussion. I appreciate that you have directed so much of your "leisure" time to responding to me.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

...ruffled more than your share of a few feathers, did you?

After thoroughly reading the blog and commentary I found much to agree with and a fair amount of opinion I disagree with. I think you've accomplished your purpose here in giving readers quite a lot to consider, and in encouraging them to think as well as comment about time spent not earning money. Some people never actually choose to experience "leisure". My idea of leisure and your idea most probably would not equate and I celebrate that. There has been so much "play" about leisure time in recent years coming at us from all directions including our doctors and the (gasp) "health care industry", which is actually about "sick care" and only recently publically espouses the advantages of wellness care (and that's another topic for another time).

I've enjoyed spending some of my leisure time reading and commenting within the parameters of this blog. Good job.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


One additional thing I wanted to comment on.

You wrote the following paragraph:

"There is little doubt in my mind that many of the differences result from being in a different generation. There are many who think that most of younger generation do
not want to work at all, and would prefer having everything just handed to them (why not, it’s already there?”). Rather, sit around all day and watch movies or playing video games or sitting around discussing concepts (whether idle chat or otherwise)."

This might be the reaction to Calvinist philosophy that I have been talking about. I'm not sure who the "many" you refer to are- your colleagues, friends, cohorts? But their beliefs seems to reinforce my entire argument.

Perhaps the younger generation is questioning the concept of "work for work's sake". Perhaps they seek more meaning in the way they expend their efforts. They don't believe in the "progress" that the older generation promises will accompany an unquestioning work ethic. The so-called X-generation is the first generation since the second world war that will experience a slide in average real income over their lifetimes. Perhaps they are not working under the assumptions that preceding generations have taken for granted. The X-gen is going to bear the costs of the prosperity the babyboomers inherited from their parents. They are going to have to work longer and harder just to pay off the entitlements that boomers have come to expect as their due. But they aren't going to be able to expect comparable rewards. Do you really find it surprising that they are resisting attitudes that were developed under dramatically different conditions? Many of my generation perceive promises of prosperity rewarding effort to be an illusion.

I find it interesting that you lump together the following activities:

"sit around all day and watch movies or playing video games or sitting around discussing concepts"

One of these activities doesn't seem to belong. Maybe from a management perspective, it's not the worker ant's place to discuss concepts. After all, management needs to justify its existence... and what better way than to claim "concepts" as their exclusive domain?

However, being an educator, it's my job to be concerned with thinking about and discussing concepts. It's certainly a far cry from "sit around all day and watch movies or playing video games (sic)"

4:15 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home