A new wave of automation is upon us. In light of these changes, we could end up with a lot more leisure than today – or a lot less.
Very likely it will not be evenly distributed. However, automation, digitalization and new technology also mean more ways to spend our free time, regardless of how much of it we may have. ”Free time” is relatively new as a concept – as old as industrialization – and has looked much the same since the nineteenth century. But how might it look different in the future?
In the agrarian economy, leisure was unregulated – most people worked when there was work to do and didn’t work when there wasn’t, such as at night, in winter, or while waiting for supplies.
As society industrialized, a need arose to compartmentalize time into ”work” and ”leisure” with little to no overlap. Work was done in the factory or office and leisure elsewhere. Now, this compartmentalization is again dissolving.
Remote work through digital platforms makes it harder and harder to say when we are truly free. This obviously applies primarily for white-collar work, but less abstract professions also see a blurring of the lines; is a delivery person ”off work” while browsing apps for potential gigs, or are they working?
Unions and political movements fought for 8-hour workdays and five-day weeks but as work and leisure get harder to define, these traditional divisions might no longer make sense. In a world ridden by rampant economic inequality, inequality of time will also rise. It’s possible that automation and technology will resolve these difficulties over time, but if it doesn’t, the struggle for leisure time might be one of the bigger political issues of our century.
There is no denying leisure is fundamental to people’s well-being. Rest, physical activity, social interaction and learning are all human needs typically met in ones’ off time – not at work.
Few jobs are capable of providing all of the above, after all. Instead, these needs are met by a variety of actors, from volunteer organizations (such as clubs or youth organizations) to municipalities and councils (public libraries or swim halls) to businesses (everything from cinemas to restaurants).
As the line between work and free time blurs, employers begin to deliver more forms of leisure at work (like in-office gyms), and new businesses emerge catering to people with increasingly occupied schedules. Leisure is in many ways an economic driver, and a society where both time and leisure activities are more fragmented gives rise to more niched and specialized actors, delivering leisure activities that are new both with regards to their form and their content.
As work becomes digitized and unconstrained by time or place, so, to a great degree, does leisure. If we can work anywhere, and at any time, then it also becomes logical that we want stimulation and entertainment anywhere, and at any time. Sometimes leisure may even be part of work; are those vacation pictures on Instagram for fun, or part of your personal brand?
To prepare your organization to deal with the future of play, you must first understand the future of work. Both are being shaped by the same forces – and the border between them will likely only get blurrier, at least in the near future.
Published with approval by the author Rikard Molander