Free Time – A Forgotten Dream

Benjamin Hunnicutt: Free TimeYesterday some of my most fundamental assumptions about work and life were challenged.

I had the pleasure of skyping with Benjamin Hunnicutt, professor at the University of Iowa and author of a new book called “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.”

Hunnicutt showed me that about 100 years ago, most people fully expected work to play an increasingly diminished role in our lives. Work hours had been steadily dropping (mostly through the efforts of organized labor) and even John Maynard Keynes predicted that we’d end up with 2,5-hour work days.

This would create a huge amount of free time in workers’ lives which could be spent in communities, education, sports and leisure. As we all know, that is not exactly what ended up happening in most of the world, especially the US.

Instead, working hours in America have increased and increased more. Where the ideal used to be having a job that allowed you to make enough money to enjoy the rest of your life, work itself became the ideal and full employment for everyone became a societal goal.

Also, the ideal has become not just having a full-time job, but having a fulfilling job. One where you can realize your full potential and build a positive identity. However, many people work in workplaces where this is not currently possible. They would be able to seek fulfilment in their leisure time.

We also talked about good and bad free time. Good free time connects you to other people, let’s you do something meaningful and gives you a positive identity. Think amateur theatre, volunteer work, community service, sports and similar. Hunnicutt and has wife have recently taken up ballroom dancing.

Bad free time is basically TV. A passive activity that results in no meaningful improvement or enjoyment.

My work, of course, is to help create happier workplaces. I honestly believe that most jobs can be enjoyable and fulfilling and I believe that this is an advantage to both workers and workplaces.

But Hunnicutt helped me see that our current notions of what ideally constitutes employment are just that – current notions. We might easily be able to find better ways to divide our time between work and leisure.

Like IT company 37signals who introduced a 4-day work week, or like Kellogg’s who until the 1980s had 6-hour work days.

Denmark (my country) is getting this somewhat right. Danish workers have both shorter working days, more annual vacation time (typically 5-6 weeks) and long maternity/paternity leaves than almost any other OECD country. And (not coincidentally in my opinion) Danish workers are some of the most productive and Denmark is routinely ranked as the happiest nation in the world.

I would personally like to see people enjoy both their work time and their free time but right now the needle is pointing towards more and more work time. I think this is a mistake for both workplaces and workers.

Ask someone to describe their perfect day and few people would say “Well, I’d go work for 9 or 10 hours than come home too tired to play with my kids.”

Your take

What do you think? How many hours do you work in a typical week? How many hours would you like to work? How many hours would your boss like you to work? How many hours would your children like you to work?

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5 thoughts on “Free Time – A Forgotten Dream”

  1. One of the reasons for this “regrettable” state of affairs is productivity. Think about what an hour’s wage bought you 100 years ago versus what it buys you today. Include in that calculation what it buys your kids – like an Ivy League education, if your child makes the grade … unheard of 100 years ago. It’s hardly surprising that so many people choose to work more hours.

    Now, is the increased purchasing power what truly makes someone happy? Do these jobs infuse a person’s life with meaning? Maybe yes, maybe no. My guess is there is a lot of variation in the answers on an individual level. That said, the general desire to work more hours versus someone 100 years ago is neither surprising nor irrational.

  2. It may sound a bit trite, but I believe that the real goal should be to find something you love to do because, as the saying goes, if you love your work you will never work a day in your life.

    I work a good 9-12 hours a day, but take a ton of vacation time off too, where i might work very little.

    Being slef emplyed makes it easy for me, but even in conventional work, there could and should be a place to find a field you LOVE to work in.

  3. I’m self-employed because I want the freedom to set my own hours. I aim to work about 30 hours each week (I’ve automated portions of my businesses), but, depending on how my businesses are doing, it may be more or less than that.

    No children yet, but they are a primary motivator for decreasing my working hours to improve my quality of life.

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