Whatever Happened to the Age Of Leisure?

Villemard Predictions for the Year 2000

Age of Leisure: In 1910 Villemard imagined life in 2000. Note how it involves a lot of sitting down. Presumably all the bricklayers are off reading books about Plato and Aristotle.

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.

The Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach, 1536. Note the lack of work going on.

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)

**Recently five ‘rising Conservative MPs’ suggested that British people work too few hours, have too long a lie-in and retire too early.

Telling the Future: R.D.Blumenfeld

Trying to predict what the world is going to be like in 50 or 100 years is always tricky, but that hasn’t stopped people from giving it a shot. In the first of a haphazard series, Ralph Blumenfield, Editor of the Daily Express between 1902 and 1932, imagines the future of newspapers.

Writing in The Press in My Time (1933), he said:

It is safe to assume that fifty years hence the world will be far more cosmopolitan than it is today… In fifty years time international communication by telephone will have become general. So will air traffic. people will travel by air as regularly as they now go by train or motor. Great numbers of people will possess their own aeroplanes just as they now possess their own motor-cars… With these increased facilities for foreign travel there will be a constant stream of visitors from one country to another. People will week-end at Rome or Rapallo or Moscow, just as they now week-end at Brighton or Clacton or Paris.

Ah, the personal aeroplane… but full marks otherwise.

With so much intercourse between the nationals of various countries, intellectual horizons will be broadened… people will expect the newspapers to keep them well informed about all the latest happenings and cultural developments in these countries. Thus the newspaper of the future will devote far more space to news from abroad than is customary at the moment….

Blumenfeld can’t really be blamed for not foreseeing the slow death of the news ‘paper’ but it’s broadly true if you include internet news sites.

As the rush of life slows down, people will have time to read their newspapers properly. It will no longer be necessary for the popular newspaper to give its news and critical commentaries in disjointed snippets. It will be able to organise its reading matter on broader and more solid lines… People will read more, and probably write more too. Much more space will be given to book reviews. Probably every newspaper will devote half a page daily to reviews of the latest books.

A fine dream, Ralph. Three pages weekly, maybe. Again the internet has to come to the rescue.

There will be a great improvement in the journalism of sport. Generally speaking, the sport journalism of our popular newspapers today is desperately poor stuff. it mainly consists of gossipy paragraphs about “incidents” and side issues connected with the players… I see no reason why the prowess of our great cricketers and athletes should not inspire our journalists to fine imaginative prose.

And you thought you had it bad, Ralph.

Of course the “Gossip” paragraph will continue side by side with the serious criticism. it is a form of publicity which many people desire and pay for; and it is a feature which the public loves. Gossip columns, therefore, will figure as largely in the newspapers of the future as they have done in those of the past. I think, however, that in years to come the Press will use this feature more scrupulously, and certainly with more taste than has been the tendency of late.

Fat chance. We’re hacking Brangelina’s phone with one hand while taking pictures of Tom Cruise’s daughter with the other.

It will be asked, How will the newspaper be able to meet all these additional demands on its space without becoming unwieldy in size? Are we to anticipate daily newspapers of 50 to 60 pages? I do not think so… The newspaper of the future will possibly extend to 40 pages, but that will be the maximum.

More true now than in the 80s and 90s, when newspaper pages sometimes reached three figures.

In the Age of Leisure we may expect to see other groups of opinion running daily newspapers. Probably, for example, there will be religious daily papers… These new organs of opinion will be national in the sense that they will have their readers all over the country. Aviation will make national distribution easier. Every newspaper will have its own aerodrome. Any home in any part of the country will be able to have its London newspaper on the breakfast table.

Not sure about this Age of Leisure idea… but If you substitute the internet for aviation then you’re looking at 2012.

Finally, I believe that as newspapers continue to grow in intelligence and vision, and evince greater circumspection in regard to what are colloquially termed “stunts” – or in more polite language “Movements of Activity” – they will become increasingly recognised as indispensable adjuncts to the family life, and as guides, counsellors and friends.

Ralph David Blumenfeld died in 1948.

Printing the Daily Telegraph

‘Printing the Daily Telegraph’, from Living London (1905), edited by George R. Sims

Subeditors Room at the Daily Mail

‘Subeditors Room at the Daily Mail’ from Living London