Tag Archives: leisure

Aspirational or Inspirational?

Both of my parents came from a background of chronic poverty and limited educational opportunity. They eventually overcame these constraints through a combination of hard work, persistence and passion. They instilled these traits in me, and somehow they did so in a way that fostered a belief in a well-balanced life containing both work and leisure.

But to many, especially in the United States, the live-to-work ethic thrives. This condition is so acute and prevalent that most Americans caught in corporate jobs never take their full — and yet meager by global standards — allotment of annual vacation. Our culture is replete with tales of driven, aspirational parents — think dragon mom — who seem to have their kid’s lives mapped out from the crib.

I have to agree with columnist George Monbiot: while naked ambition may gain our children monetary riches and a higher rung on the corporate ladder it does not a life make.

From the Guardian:

Perhaps because the alternative is too hideous to contemplate, we persuade ourselves that those who wield power know what they are doing. The belief in a guiding intelligence is hard to shake.

We know that our conditions of life are deteriorating. Most young people have little prospect of owning a home, or even of renting a decent one. Interesting jobs are sliced up, through digital Taylorism, into portions of meaningless drudgery. The natural world, whose wonders enhance our lives, and upon which our survival depends, is being rubbed out with horrible speed. Those to whom we look for guardianship, in government and among the economic elite, do not arrest this decline, they accelerate it.

The political system that delivers these outcomes is sustained by aspiration: the faith that if we try hard enough we could join the elite, even as living standards decline and social immobility becomes set almost in stone. But to what are we aspiring? A life that is better than our own, or worse?

Last week a note from an analyst at Barclays’ Global Power and Utilities group in New York was leaked. It addressed students about to begin a summer internship, and offered a glimpse of the toxic culture into which they are inducted.

“I wanted to introduce you to the 10 Power Commandments … For nine weeks you will live and die by these … We expect you to be the last ones to leave every night, no matter what … I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … the internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … an intern asked our staffer for a weekend off for a family reunion – he was told he could go. He was also asked to hand in his BlackBerry and pack up his desk … Play time is over and it’s time to buckle up.”

Play time is over, but did it ever begin? If these students have the kind of parents featured in the Financial Times last month, perhaps not. The article marked a new form of employment: the nursery consultant. These people, who charge from £290 an hour, must find a nursery that will put their clients’ toddlers on the right track to an elite university.

They spoke of parents who had already decided that their six-month-old son would go to Cambridge then Deutsche Bank, or whose two-year-old daughter “had a tutor for two afternoons a week (to keep on top of maths and literacy) as well as weekly phonics and reading classes, drama, piano, beginner French and swimming. They were considering adding Mandarin and Spanish. ‘The little girl was so exhausted and on edge she was terrified of opening her mouth.’”

In New York, playdate coaches charging $450 an hour train small children in the social skills that might help secure their admission to the most prestigious private schools. They are taught to hide traits that could suggest they’re on the autistic spectrum, which might reduce their chances of selection.

From infancy to employment, this is a life-denying, love-denying mindset, informed not by joy or contentment, but by an ambition that is both desperate and pointless, for it cannot compensate for what it displaces: childhood, family life, the joys of summer, meaningful and productive work, a sense of arrival, living in the moment. For the sake of this toxic culture, the economy is repurposed, the social contract is rewritten, the elite is released from tax, regulation and the other restraints imposed by democracy.

Where the elite goes, we are induced to follow. As if the assessment regimes were too lax in UK primary schools, last year the education secretary announced a new test for four-year-olds. A primary school in Cambridge has just taken the obvious next step: it is now streaming four-year-olds into classes according to perceived ability. The education and adoption bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, will turn the screw even tighter. Will this help children, or hurt them?

Read the entire column here.

No Work Past 6pm. C’est La Vie


Many westerners either love or hate the French. But, you have to hand it to them: where American’s love to work; the French, well, just love to do other stuff.

Famous for its maximum 35-hour work week enacted in 1999, the country recently established another restriction on employer demands. It is now illegal for superiors to demand that their office employees check computers, tablets or smartphones after 6pm. So, while the Brits must be whining that their near neighbors have gained yet another enviable characteristic, Americans must be leaving the country in droves. After all, 6pm is merely a signal that the workday is only half over in the United States. Mind you, the French do seem to live longer. Sacre bleu.

From the Independent:

It’s an international version of the postcode lottery. The dateline lottery, if you like, which means that if you are born in Limoges rather than Lancaster, you’re likely to live longer. The 2013 list of life expectancy compiled by the World Health Organisation has France in 13th position and the United Kingdom way behind in 29th spot.

The average life expectancy for these two countries, separated only by 23 miles of waterway, is 82.3 years and 81 years respectively. While it may not seem much of a difference at this remove, it’s something those Britons who are approaching their 81st birthdays might not be feeling too cheerful about.

We are repeatedly told that it is to do with the French diet, all that olive oil and fresh fruit and a glass of red wine with meals, which wards off heart disease. Anyone who’s been to provincial France, however, and tried to buy something from a shop between noon and 3pm, or, depending on where you are, on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, might have stumbled upon the real reason for the greater longevity of the French. This is a place that still believes in half-day closing and taking lunch breaks. This is a country that has a very different attitude towards work from some of its close Northern European neighbours. And the chances are that, if your work-life balance is tilted more towards life, you are going to live longer.

France is the only country in the world to have adopted a 35-hour working week and this is strictly enforced. So much so that, yesterday, an agreement was signed between bosses and unions representing more than a million white-collar employees that would strike the average British worker as an edict from Cloud Cuckoo Land. It is a legally enforceable deal that means workers should not be contacted once they have left the office. It is as if the smartphone had never been invented (and yes, I know, many of us might hanker for a return to those days).

It’s rather ironic that French businesses in the technology sector will not be allowed to urge their employees to check emails once they’ve done their day’s work, and the unions will from now on be measuring what they are neatly calling “digital working time”.

How quaint these ideas seem to us. Heaven only knows what the average British working week would be if digital hours were taken into consideration. No matter what time of the day or night, whatever we may be doing in our leisure hours, we are only a ping away from being back at a virtual desk. I rarely have dinner with anyone these days who isn’t attached to their smartphone, waiting for a pause in the conversation so they can check their emails. Not good for digestion, not good for quality of life.

Here’s the thing, too. French productivity levels outstrip those of Britain and Germany, and French satisfaction with their quality of life is above the OECD average. No wonder, we may say. We’d all like to take a couple of hours off for lunch, washed down with a nice glass of Côtes du Rhône, and then switch our phones off as soon as we leave work. It’s just that our bosses won’t let us.

Read the entire article here (before 6pm if you’re in France at a work computer).

Work as Punishment (and For the Sake of Leisure)

Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame reminds us that work is punishment for Adam’s sin, according to the Book of Genesis. No doubt, many who hold other faiths, as well as those who don’t, may tend to agree with this basic notion.

So, what on earth is work for?

Gutting goes on to remind us that Aristotle and Bertrand Russell had it right: that work is for the sake of leisure.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Is work good or bad?  A fatuous question, it may seem, with unemployment such a pressing national concern.  (Apart from the names of the two candidates, “jobs” was the politically relevant word most used by speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions.) Even apart from current worries, the goodness of work is deep in our culture. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work with a national holiday.

But there’s an underlying ambivalence: we celebrate Labor Day by not working, the Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam’s sin, and many of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working.

We’re ambivalent about work because in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay (wage-labor), not for its own sake.  It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve.  For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well.  But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.

What, then, is work for? Aristotle has a striking answer: “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” This may at first seem absurd. How can we be happy just doing nothing, however sweetly (dolce far niente)?  Doesn’t idleness lead to boredom, the life-destroying ennui portrayed in so many novels, at least since “Madame Bovary”?

Everything depends on how we understand leisure. Is it mere idleness, simply doing nothing?  Then a life of leisure is at best boring (a lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide”), and at worst terrifying (leaving us, as Pascal says, with nothing to distract from the thought of death).  No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.

We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly enjoyable for their own sake — perhaps eating and drinking, sports, love, adventure, art, contemplation? The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life. Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.

Bertrand Russell, in his classic essay “In Praise of Idleness,” agrees. ”A great deal of harm,” he says, “is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” Instead, “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” Before the technological breakthroughs of the last two centuries, leisure could be only “the prerogative of small privileged classes,” supported by slave labor or a near equivalent. But this is no longer necessary: “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]