Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2014 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, has an interesting take on the ‘agricultural revolution'; you know, where, way back, we learned to plant crops and domesticate animals. He calls it “history’s biggest fraud.” Not in the sense that it didn’t happen. It did, leading to an increase in food supply and, consequent to that, the growth of cities. His contention is that it did not lead to a better life for humankind, neither a healthier diet nor more leisure time.
Instead it led to a less stimulating life with the increased likelihood of starvation and disease. The starvation came about as the result of periodic natural disasters, like drought, devastating the crops we came to depend upon, and the disease came about because urban conditions are much better for spreading illness than are rural ones. As to leisure time, Harari asserts that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ambled about a wide, natural territory, often able to harvest a diverse and abundant food supply, and to do so in fewer hours than it took the average farmer to feed his family a few centuries later.
Rutger Bregman, in his 2016 book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek, makes a similar argument about the industrial revolution. It did not lead to a more leisurely life. Bregman estimates that in 1300 the average English farmer worked about 1500 hours a year in order to make a living, whereas the typical factory worker in Victorian England worked twice that many hours just to survive. The 70-hour workweek was the norm in a city like Manchester in 1850, no weekends, no vacations.
Eventually things improved. By about 1940, in the West, the 40-hour, five-day workweek was fairly standard, a change led, surprisingly enough, by none other than Henry Ford.
And then, things truly began to look up. In 1956 Richard Nixon promised Americans a four-day workweek, and by 1965, prognosticators everywhere were predicting vast increases in leisure time, with workweeks of as little as 14 hours. There was considerable hand-wringing about the coming, perplexing problem of boredom, idle hands given to inflamed immorality and violence.
It all came to a grim, grinding halt in the 1980s. Today the average guy in the U.S. works 8.4 hours per work day, or 42 hours per week. That’s very little changed in the last 50 years.
The digital revolution has brought us an accelerated life, new, not always better forms of community, grotesque economic inequality, and, unlike the industrial revolution, persistent unemployment. (Many people, like weavers, were put out of work by the industrial revolution, but then it went on to deliver a slew of different types of employment, like shop foremen.) And so far, for those people still working, it hasn’t done much for additional leisure time.
The other factor in why many of us are busier these days is what Bregman cites as “the most important development of the last decades.” The feminist revolution. While in some countries at least the workload for individuals has decreased slightly, families these days are living a blur, because these days women are contributing about 40% of the family income, and working full time to do so.
It seems that, with the coming of the digital revolution, we’ve gone and done it to ourselves again. And here’s a disconcerting note; surveys show that many people today would rather earn more than work less—so that they can live the lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of. They’d rather have that bigger house, newer car, more fashionable outfit, and dream vacation than they would more leisure time. We might call this the consumer revolution, and it’s largely a post-WWII phenomenon.
What’s to be done? Well, it’s not in fact that mysterious. Economic answers come with things like a guaranteed annual income and a progressive tax regime that effectively redistributes wealth. And there is very solid evidence as to the validity of these economic remedies, much of it to be found in Bregman’s book.
But just as relevant to the modern leisure deficit is the fact that, as indicated above, we chose these outcomes. Not always consciously, and often incrementally, without realizing the ensuing consequences, but nevertheless we had and still have choice in these matters.
We can choose to live more simply, with less stuff. We can choose to buy a smaller home, drive an older car, purchase clothing at a second-hand store, and grow a garden.
Don’t like your job? Feeling like a wage slave? Have other interests you’d love to pursue?
It’s a choice.