A papal salute for leisure

May 14, 2013

In the 1960s, some futurists gazed into their crystal balls and pronounced that we would be chauffered by highly intelligent apes by 2020.

They also argued that advances in technology would lead to an explosion of leisure – by the 21st century, we would enjoy work weeks that would only last three days, maybe four, and the greatest challenge would be filling all those hours of unfettered respite.

Which claim now seems the more outlandish and absurd? Of course, the second one. Pigs will likely fly and, yes, chimps and monkeys will probably be behind the wheel before four-day weekends become routine. There have been major leaps forward in technology since the 1960s, increasing convenience, productivity and profits. Yet Americans are working more than ever, at least one month more per year since the 1970s. The widespread profusion of smartphones, tablets and laptops has made the office an anytime, anyplace proposition for many workers. Even many business travelers feel they are on the clock when jetting from city to city and use the time checking email messages or working on memos or spreadsheets. No more are they gazing at the clouds, thumbing the in-flight magazine, idly chatting with their seatmates or intently studying the backs of their eyelids.

All told, according to the International Labor Organization, Americans work almost 500 more hours per year than the French, 260 more hours than the British and 137 more than the Japanese. Our own Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that per-worker productivity in America has increased by 400 percent.

Despite all the assertions that we need to work harder, work faster, work smarter, work, work, work and work some more, leisure apparently has a champion in the form of the newly installed Pope Francis.

The New York Times reported a few weeks ago that the freshly published “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words,” which compiles interviews conducted in Argentina in 2010 when he was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, has the new pope tipping his hat to taking it easy. When asked if the meaning of leisure needed a fresh look, Francis replied, “Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport.”

Francis further argued that this decline of leisure was due to the loss of Sunday as a designated day of rest and contemplation. “More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society.”

This is a more wide-ranging concern than the secularization of Sunday, but the pope’s point is well-taken. We need to take a breather, not only for the sake of our physical and mental health, but also to have a well-rounded life.

Life can’t be a month of Sundays, as much as we might wish it were, but we should be mindful of our lives outside the office, factory gate or shop. It’s good to know that Pope Francis doesn’t necessarily believe that idle hands are the devil’s tools.



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