Last month I watched the fantastic BBC eight-part series of Les Misérables on CBC Gem.
The miniseries is not based on the celebrated musical but rather the darker offering of Victor Hugo’s novel on 19th century urban France as it was on the cusp of revolution. Observing the working-class characters’ brutal lives got me thinking about “free time.”
Ninety years ago, John Maynard Keynes figured we’d be working just 30 hours a week by 2030. Our problem, he surmised, would be a surplus of free time. We were on track to fulfilling Keynes’ speculation, steadily reducing our working hours right up until 1980. That’s when globalization started in earnest and working harder — and more often — became desirable for the wealthy who wanted more wealth and undeniably urgent for the working class who now toiled harder just to get by.
When people were making a better living from the 1950s through to the 1970s, people chose to use some of their free time to join service clubs, making weekly contributions of their time to the community. (Our feature story this month explores this theme and how volunteering has changed.)
It’s worth pointing out that the ancient Greeks saw a difference between “play” and “leisure.” Play, or recreation, was true downtime. Leisure, on the other hand, combined learning, discussing political ideas and connecting with the community.
This is one of the reasons I support a basic income as a foundation of a just society. When we take the worry of poverty from people’s shoulders there will be time to contribute to one’s community, something that happens naturally when basic needs are met.
Instead, we are united in the premise of maximizing people to produce labour, or jobs. We disparage idleness and reflection, even as mental health challenges soar, and we make our social benefits conditional on labour and its frantic pursuit.
Professor Guy Standing from the U.K. notes that if a person “goes from looking after frail relatives to pouring tea for a boss, national income and employment go up; if the person goes in the other direction, a job is ‘lost.’ What counts as work depends not on what you do but whom you do it for.” The fact that so few of us mock this absurdity is perhaps the saddest aspect of all.
Now, with the labour aspects of our lives so intense and all-consuming for many, we use our limited free time at play, not in leisure, because we need downtime to unwind and recover from our jobs. The consequence, as Standing writes, is that the squeeze on time means real leisure — community participation and civic connection — is lost for too many of us. Poverty, then, is not just a lack of money for individuals; it is a lack of participation in community life.