At the beginning of the last Great Depression, in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes offered us hope. In the future the wonders of technology would deliver us from our lives of toil and bring forth an Age of Leisure.
For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.*
It would be a world where ‘the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance’, a world of three-hour days and 15-hour weeks.
This dream of a return to the Garden of Eden (ah, if only God had tasked us with doing some weeding instead of leaving us to temptation), was popular in the booming 1950s. It was thought that atomic power and electronic gadgets would remove the need for human labour almost completely – and therefore that we’d all be left hanging around wondering what to do with ourselves.
A worried Charles Darwin (not that one, but his grandson Sir Charles Galton Darwin) wrote an article about the forthcoming Age of Leisure for the New Scientist in 1956.
Take it that there are fifty hours a week of possible working time. The technologists, working for fifty hours a week, will be making inventions so the rest of the world need only work twenty-five hours a week. The more leisured members of the community will have to play games for the other twenty-five hours so they may be kept out of mischief.
Is the majority of mankind really able to face the choice of leisure enjoyments, or will it not be necessary to provide adults with something like the compulsory games of the schoolboy?
More positively, Ralph Blumenfeld, the editor of the Daily Express, believed in 1933 that ‘as the rush of life slows down, people will have time to read their newspapers properly.’
Now fast track to the present day, and this Age of Leisure sounds like a naive socialist utopia.** Sure, most of us don’t have to do back-breaking work in the fields, down the pits and up chimneys, but I’d guess a majority of the population would laugh at the idea they had any more free time than their grandparents.
*John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)