Why We Work So Hard – Work and Leisure Today

Earlier, we wrote about the potential threat posed to the world by the emerging class of freelancers, or precariat. One of the features of the precariat is the irregular work schedule and the need to be immersed in the digital world. We blend freelance work with leisure, hence the boundaries between leisure and work are blurring. Sociologists try to explain why we work so hard and have less leisure time.

As Guy Standing puts it, “The growth of labour, work-for-labour and work-for-reproduction also eats into ‘leisure’. The loss of respect for leisure, and for reproductive and productive ‘idleness’, is one of the worst outcomes of the commodifying market society. Those who experience intensive work and labour find their minds and bodies ‘spent’ and have little energy or inclination to do anything other than to indulge in passive ‘play’. People who are spent want to relax in ‘play’, often by watching a screen or conducting a dialogue with a series of screens. Of course, we all need ‘play’ in some form. But if labour and work are so intense, we may have no energy or inclination to participate in more active leisure activities” (The Precariat: the new dangerous class).

This issue has prompted us to take a closer look at the current status of leisure and “doing nothing” in the modern world.

– What have you been up to today?

– Nothing. Just watching TV.

A typical dialog

Some leisure activities, such as watching TV programs or playing computer games, are equal to doing nothing in collective thinking. Technically such leisure does not fall in that “doing nothing” category. After all, watching movies and gaming require certain efforts, albeit for entertainment. 

A question on Quora: Why do most people just do nothing but watch TV

A search on Google for ‘leisure’ yields these definitions: 

  • time when one is not working or occupied; free time
  • use of free time for enjoyment
  • opportunity afforded by free time to do something

Whereas the first meaning traditionally correlates with time free from work, the “opportunity afforded by free time to do something” shifts the emphasis to “doing”.

“Doing” extends only to those activities that are beneficial in the eyes of society. Therefore, people who have managed to turn entertainment into work – professional gamers, for example – face bewilderment and reproach. Their activity has not yet gone beyond the realm of “idleness” and marginalized leisure.

This attitude to leisure has a long history and is associated with the cult of work. 

Protestant Work Ethic

Protestants have developed their work ethic, a religious doctrine that asserts the importance of hard work. They believed that labour and commerce are not only profitable economic activities but also a virtue. The desire to make money and create a profitable business was perceived by Protestants as fulfilling a divine duty. If income increases and wealth grows, this is a sign of blessing. According to Max Weber, Protestants achieved greater economic successes than Catholics because they were more inclined to business pursuits.

For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds, provided you are a man of known prudence and honesty. He that spends a groat a day idly, spends idly above six pounds a year, which is the price for the use of one hundred pounds. He that wastes idly a groat’s worth of his time per day, one day with another, wastes the privilege of using one hundred pounds each day. He that idly loses five shillings’ worth of time; loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw five shillings into the sea. He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantage that might be made by turning it in dealing, which by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount to a considerable sum of money.

Benjamin Franklin, “Hints For Those That Would Be Rich,” from Poor Richard’s Almanack (1737)

“Doing nothing” is condemned by society as a bad habit, unhealthy lifestyle that inevitably makes people pathetic and miserable. People who succumb to it for a long time are called “idlers”.

When searching “doing nothing is good” Google returns a lot of articles telling why it’s good and even introduces us to another Northern European trend called ‘niksen’, which literally means to do nothing. Their authors defend everyone’s “natural right” to be idle, just sit on a sofa, staring out of the window. Doing nothing becomes a cornerstone in the discussions about work-life balance. Doing nothing is even being declared a feminist issue (Why doing nothing is a radical act for India’s women – photo essay).

We are so tired at work that we have no energy left for “useful” leisure – only for nothing. But since doing nothing is condemned in many cultures, people try to justify and rehabilitate such leisure, first of all in their own eyes.

Human Capital and Leisure

In 1930 John Maynard Keynes published an essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. The goal of his work was to answer the following questions: “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?” By 2028, he predicted, the “standard of life” in Europe and the United States would be so improved that no one would need to worry about making money. One of the challenges people will face is how to fill their leisure time: “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.” Keynes believed that the grandchildren of his generation would work about three hours a day as the technological change would make jobs more efficient.

But we don’t work 15 hours a week. What’s more, we work harder than ever. What happened? There is no exact and complete answer, but somewhat it’s a matter of human nature and our attitude to money.

Keynes could not foresee that today jobs would stop being a post of employment but begin to define identity.

A Wikipedia's definition of job as a person's role in society
Source: Wikipedia

In the 60s, economists turned their attention to leisure and efficient time allocation. One of them was Gary Becker, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In Human Capital (1964), he argued that an individual’s investment in education and training is similar to a company’s investment in new machinery or equipment. He described human capital as “activities that influence future monetary and psychic income by increasing resources in people” (Becker 1994, 11). These include qualities like schooling, on-the-job training, medical care, migration, and searching for information about prices and incomes. Becker’s starting point was that parents split their time across investment in their child’s human capital just as entrepreneurs invest in the factors of production. 

Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, pointed out to four types of capital: 

  1. Economic Capital.
  2. Cultural Capital.
  3. Social Capital.
  4. Symbolic Capital

Economic capital is a variety of economic resources that can be used by an individual – money, various goods, etc.

Cultural capital includes education, the authority of the university that the individual graduated from, the demand for his certificates and diplomas in the labour market. The cultural level of the individual himself is also a component of cultural capital. 

Social capital is an individual’s belonging to a specific social group. Relations with the upper class gives the individual more power and big opportunities in life.

Symbolic capital is what is usually called a name, prestige, reputation. Famous people have more resources to achieve their goals than those who are not popular.

Almost all kinds of capital can convert into each other. Thus, having symbolic capital, one can climb up the social ladder, thereby gaining social capital. Only cultural capital has relative independence. However, even having a large amount of economic capital, it is not easy to acquire cultural capital. The conversion of capital is carried out according to a certain exchange rate, which depends on the society and the state of the market. Various forms of capital give agents power over those who have fewer or none capital at all. 

Work-life Balance and Privacy

The concept of work-life balance emerged in response to workplace stress. Workplace stress has adverse effects on workers’ mental health, with an increased risk of burnout and depression. At the same time, this concept has become a convenient manifestation of the theory of human capital. In other words, in “life” you gain symbolic capital, at “work” you monetize it.

… benefits of work-life balance include the ability to effectively develop your work and social lifestyle simultaneously. This means there’s sufficient time to spend with friends and family as well as the chance to acquire new skills or further education while working.

Source: Cleverism – Work-life balance


Now and then articles explaining the importance of work-life balance suggest that we use our free time for personal development and learning.
In their terms, if you use your spare time to grow your cultural, symbolic and social capital, you can convert it into economic assets.


Even the idea of human happiness itself is inseparable from the “work-life balance” concept: you are good at work while you’re happy and sane. Simply put, an employee who feels good is good, and whoever feels bad is a bad worker.

Statistics show that stressed up workers are more inefficient; they work below their capacities.

Source: Cleverism – Work-life balance

Thus, leisure and idleness moved from private life, which traditionally was not subject to measurement and calculation, to the realm of economic efficiency. We are told to work efficiently and leave home issues at home. We should increase our human capital devoting more time to learning new skills to stay “marketable”.

Unfortunately, this resulted in professional competencies replacing real personal growth and that human qualities are being replaced by the properties of the labor force.

See also – If famous writers had CVs: Ernest Hemingway