Labor and Leisure

Oddly, the structure of the 7-day week, unlike 24, 30 or 365, does not have a basis in the rotations of the Moon, or our rotations around the Sun.

From 6,000-7,000 ago with the establishment of the Jewish lunar calendar, one day of the week has been devoted to rest. The Yom Shabbat Kodesh, or Sabbath, began a Saturday rest tradition, which Christianity adopted and remixed to Sundays, and some Islamic traditions to Fridays. The Sabbath has proved resilient, surviving the Crusades, the First Industrial Revolution, and evolving even further during the Second Industrial Revolution, when the first New England mills began to offer sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday for the Jewish workers to be able to observe.

A few decades later, Henry Ford began closing his plants on Saturday and Sunday, and in 1928, on the eve Great Depression, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America organized their union members to demand what we now know of as a week-end.

Modern cultures across the globe today have accepted the week-end as a useful feature of productive society. It applies to schools, is protected by governments, and anchors our popular culture.

Leisure, as we think of it today, has interwoven itself through the history of the weekend and the Sabbath. But has different roots, and it’s important to separate the two.

The tabernae of ancient Rome served as the first modern ‘retail locations’. As the empire expanded its roads across Middle Eurasia and Europe, these tabernae served as stopping points for travelers along trade routes and militaries, and also as small businesses that freedmen would organize their family incomes around. Wine, beer and spirits were commonly sold at tabernae, particularly as they reached as far west as the British Isles in the first century. Tabernae evolved into taverns, pubs, alehouses, and inns. And we now know them as bars, restaurants, and hotels. The activity of ‘going out’ has its history not just in the ancient dinner campfires of our ancestors, but in the travelers of Roman roads, and the establishments that anchored them.

I share this history to express an important distinction: Days of rest and so-called leisure time do not share the same history, and are very different traditions.

The day of rest explicitly refers to the Sabbath – to the opportunity to commune with a Higher Power, to investigate life’s meaning, to discover one’s purpose. Food and drink and merriment are sometimes associated with the day of rest, but fasting, silence, and prayer are just as often critical to it.

By this viewing, the weekend was where one found his sense of purpose, not where one lost it. Of course, things have changed.

A number of modern trends are intersecting to confound the issue, and all warrant investigation.

First, the global economy has assented, across the majority of the population, to agree to secular norms as opposed to religious ones. We live in a secular society. The weekends are no longer designed, by the technocracy, for religious pursuit, but largely for further commercial activity - shopping, ‘going out’, buying experiences.

Second, work is, for more of the population around the world, something other than subsistence farming or factory work: it is knowledge work, and is intended to stimulate the intellect as its primary vector.**

And finally, automation is coming. Manufacturing infrastructure is automating at every level from the C&C mill, the injection mold, 3-d printing, soldering, computing, operating vehicles, and very soon, driving personal automobiles. As a result, work is increasingly meant to be meaningful, to engage the worker’s curiosity. But the opportunities for work may be shrinking. While the economists are not yet resolved on the issue, secular stagnation is at least on the table (which implies that wage growth will decelerate over time). So if work is meant to be a primary source of purpose, and we no longer use our weekend time for finding purpose in religion, and work itself has an uncertain future, this paints a concerning picture for the health of our society, doesn’t it? This article, thanks Brent, by Rutgers professor James Livingston summarizes the problem neatly:

Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the essential ingredients of healthy human being. Of course he was right. But can love survive the end of work as the willing partner of the good life?

There are two levels of diagnosis to this problem.

First of all, while work more generally may be slowing, while broad-based wage stagnation is a feature of the industrialized world, purpose-driven work continues to grow. As my parents say, none of the jobs my brothers and I currently have existed when they were our age, and none of the jobs our children will have exist right now. The knowledge economy is in its infancy – the Information Age is, at best, a generation-and-a-half old. Kevin Kelly says:

They will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.

Second, while some joke that football, reality television and video games have replaced religion in secular society, there is an important question as to how we build infrastructure that allows people to find purpose in modern times. The youngest consumers in the economy value experiences over stuff. Community is taking a fresh, dynamic, and sometimes terrifying form in pockets across the internet. And our global values continue to mature, and shape our collective moral consciousness, even when it’s one step back, two steps forward.

Not everyone will find purpose-filled work right away, although I believe we all can. And I believe that our work at Collaborative Fund is a humble drop in the ocean of new activity oriented in that direction. But not everyone will find, or will need, work in general. And so finding ways to create purpose outside of work, to make the week-end as meaningful as the Sabbath, is a responsibility – and what an opportunity! – for us all. I hope that any discussion about Universal Basic Income, technology automation, and policy design around labor gives purpose some serious thought, because it matters. My perspective here is that the arts, once funded through patronage, and then wrought through the gears of commercialization, may enjoy a second Renaissance, once the economic conditions for people to use their time adjust. This is a future to look forward to, indeed.

**This isn’t to say subsistence farming isn’t intellectual: it thoroughly is. This refers mainly to the hard labor aspect of it.