Work and Leisure Ethics

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An examination of work and leisure ethics in the United States of America reveals some shared similarities with other countries, particularly Canada and Western Europe, and some peculiarities and differences unique to the American condition. While there is arguably a mass culture in the United States that has its own identifiable values and attitudes, there is no monolithic ethic toward work and leisure shared by all Americans. Instead, the attitudes and values of Americans regarding work and leisure are both evolutionary and elusive: they have and continue to change with time and place, mirroring the country and experiences that spawned them. Any examination of the current state of American attitudes toward work and leisure will necessarily be rooted in attempts to understand this evolution.

A Brief History of Work and Leisure Ethics

The ethics associated with work and leisure in the United States are derivative of a number of influences, including Old World traditions, emerging religious values, the constraints and barriers imposed by the need for labor, the appearance of new technologies, and the varied natural and cultural environments found on the North American continent. A good starting point for evaluating American attitudes toward work and leisure, and the inherent conflicts found in these attitudes, is to examine traditional folk wisdom found in common sayings popular in the United States. "The devil makes work for idle hands" and "the early bird gets the worm" both seem to encourage industriousness and caution against excess free time. In contrast, "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy," and "the family that plays together stays together" both appear to point out the developmental value and essential nature of leisure. Taken together, these aphorisms point out the dissonance that exists in the American psyche regarding these concepts. Further, many of the old popular American warnings against leisure and idleness have even older precedents such as the German maxim "Idleness is the beginning of all vice". Similar, and older, maxims are found in other European languages, and in Hebrew and Arabic, all revealing the Old World origins of many notions commonly assumed to be American.

As Professor Serena Arnold and others have pointed out, even the etymological origins of the words leisure and recreation may have something to do with the way Americans think of these concepts. Leisure comes from the Old French leisir, which comes from the Latin word licere, meaning "to be permitted." In contrast, recreation comes from the Latin root creare, meaning "to create or make;" adding a prefix renders recreo, inferring restoration or creating anew. Similarly, the root form of the word recreation is related to other modern English words with generally positive connotations, such as "creative " and "Creator."

Conversely, the term leisure continues to connote wastefulness and sloth. Thus, as inferred from American connotations, recreation has social value and is compatible with work, while leisure stands in contrast to work and creativity, and is perhaps even antagonistic toward it. This is reflected in the overwhelming trend in the United States to use the term recreation, almost to the exclusion of the term leisure, in the naming of valued institutions and agencies: park and recreation departments, recreational sports leagues, and military MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) provide many examples of this preference in nomenclature.

These intertwined and sometimes inscrutable American attitudes are not new. While much has been said about the disdain early European-American colonists held for leisure, in fact leisure in the colonies was valued, and had social meanings which are often misunderstood outside of their historical context. While the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are famously remembered as taciturn advocates of a work-centered lifestyle, the values they placed upon recreation and play are largely forgotten. Leisure that was synonymous with sloth was eschewed, however the same Psalm Book of 1640 that proffered famous sayings against idleness was also a source of popular songs, and while some physical activity, such as dance, may have been looked down upon, singing was promoted. In fact, leisure time was valued in the early New England colonies as an opportunity for rest, commonality, family and community bonding, and proper courting.

Nevertheless, the Puritans also remain the typical starting point for discussions on religion's role in shaping New World values toward work and leisure. Within that discussion, no phrase has been bandied about more than "Protestant work ethic," Max Weber's term referring to the social sanctioning of hard work and material wealth, and the avoidance of immediate pleasures. In this work ethic, seen by Weber as descendant from Calvinist theology, labor was seen as an act of piety and discipline, a means to transform the world from wild to civilized, from the secular to the sacred.

Of course, Weber's observations about American work ethics are also complementary with wholly secular views embraced by the young country, such as John Locke's labor theory of private property, which was and is very influential in American social philosophy and law. In part, Locke's theory holds that one's labor is the one thing that is unequivocally one's own possession, and that "mixing" this labor with the material world, such as is done by tilling land, is a means of bringing the external world under one's ownership. The synergy created through the combination of these Lockean political notions and the spiritual zeitgeist Weber attempted to describe was undoubtedly one of the powerful determinants in the formulation of early American pro-work attitudes.

Further, these emerging attitudes toward work (and leisure) were very different depending on what part of the United States one was describing. Indeed, some contemporaries find it surprising that the southern colonies were more liberal than their northern counterparts when it came to leisure and social mores. Card games, horse racing, shooting contests, wrestling and liquor consumption all were widespread leisure activities in the old south, while these pursuits were more likely to be seen by their northern counterparts as corporeal pleasures to be avoided.

As Americans pushed westward, these regional distinctions moved with them and evolved as new conventions and distinctions in culture, speech, and leisure behavior emerged. Alexis de Toqueville noticed that these cultural differences were perpetuated in the newer northern and southern states "separated by the Ohio River." The famous student of early America claimed that he observed a distinct social predisposition to indolence and sloth on his left (in Kentucky) and to industry and ingenuity to his right (in Ohio) as he traveled downstream on the river that connected the original colonies to their burgeoning western frontier.

Work and leisure values continued to change as Americans settled the frontier West. In fact, the expansion itself helped define a national purpose to work toward what many believed to be their "manifest destiny" which was to expand the United States to the Pacific. When the frontier line disappeared in the 1890s, it resulted in a sort of "psychic crisis" as noted by Roderick Nash in his classic book Wilderness and the American Mind. Aside from the romantic west being important to Americans as a mythic symbol of individualism, this loss of new territories generated a kind of national ennui, as the motivating force for work and growth seemed to evaporate along with the availability of new lands to conquer and develop.

Long after the actual frontier disappeared though, life among the relatively large rural population continued to have a strong influence on a young America. It provided an environment for a type of leisure ethic that was grounded in natural time and the passing of seasons, as well as a setting where real work was strongly tied to domestic life and everyday concerns. The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, the quintessential American citizen, was predicated on this living arrangement. Discovery and exploration were built in to the experiences associated with traditional rural recreation choices, such as camping, fishing, swimming, walking, and hunting. Community life was often centered around work experiences and confronting the hardships of everyday living.

The increased urbanization of the industrial revolution changed these experiences, and attitudes changed with them. Migration to the cities brought with it alienated work and new social ills, and reformers such as Jacob Riis and Jane Addams helped propel a new vision for leisure time: recreation as an instrument of social welfare, and play as an essential developmental opportunity for young people. The creation of the modern city was, paradoxically, the cradle of the burgeoning modern park movement. A combination of poor conditions for children's play and the perceived loss of the American wilderness helped spawn the several social movements of the late nineteenth century that changed American attitudes toward leisure and public lands. These included the park and open space movement, the muscular Christianity movement, and the playground movement.

A twentieth century that saw two world wars and continued urbanization was also a time where a newer and stronger national identity emerged, gender roles and expectations changed, time became increasingly seen as a commodity, and work and leisure moved further toward separation and compartmentalization. With the increased presence of women in the workplace, women and men began to interact in new social milieus, and co-ed sports and recreational leagues became not only acceptable, but increasingly appropriate places to meet others.

One of the biggest influences on American life in the twentieth century was the explosion of automobile ownership. Automobiles, in addition to providing increased potential for long distance personal travel, helped to define new attitudes toward privacy, the everyday experience of time, and even the physical design and evolution of communities. The American car became a symbol of freedom and personal identity, and its acquisition and mastery a modern rite of passage so important that, in some communities, it became the gateway to continued adolescent development and economic independence. The internal environment of the car has only continued to evolve as mobile living space, replete with a full menu of entertainment options and personal comfort features.

Many scholars regard the post-World War II era, especially the late 1950s through the mid 1960s, as the golden age of recreation and leisure. During this era, recreation became widely institutionalized in communities and universities, favorable legislation was passed by the eighty-ninth Congress, federally sanctioned research was conducted by groups such as the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC), the work week continued to shorten, and vacation time increased. Many futurists of the time believed that a utopia of less labor, readily available commodities, and unlimited leisure was on the near horizon. Such beliefs led to serious discussions about the possibility of the end of work, and of leisure as a critical social issue.

Work and Leisure in the Early 2000s

Contemporary American values toward recreation and leisure run the gamut. Americans in the beginning of the twenty-first century saw leisure from a multitude of perspectives that were both simultaneous and juxtaposed. Leisure is a reward for work, leisure is a symbol of social status, leisure is just free time, leisure is corrupting, leisure is the summum bonum (greatest good) of life: all were held as true by Americans in 2004. Fears concerning leisure continued to be recurring themes in American thought. The possibility of ennui and anomie associated with free time were still held out as things to guard against, while others feared that leisure was elusive and would never be theirs. Recreation, though a synonym for leisure to some, was seen as an antidote to it by others. Programs such as "midnight basketball," which, depending on which American one spoke with, had become either well-known or notorious as publicly subsidized activities.

American attitudes toward subsidy itself are complex. While not all Americans view leisure as a commodity, it is clear that many do, and that a large number do not see it as a commodity that deserves widespread support with the public's treasure. The sense that the public needs to "pay to play" has started to replace the late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions that leisure was a public good that deserved subsidy. In the 1990s into the early 2000s, municipal departments scaled back operations, state and federal recreation agencies were perennially underfunded, and public and private nonprofit providers routinely raised fees and charges, all being essentially tolerated by the majority of the politically active public.

Work and leisure in many ways remain highly segmented in American culture. It has been said that "work is work, and leisure is leisure, and never the twain shall meet." This is readily observable in the fixed intervals commonly set aside for leisure: the weekend, the yearly vacation, summer camp, and official holidays. And while Americans prize their vacation time, they have fewer total days and large blocks of vacation time available than do many of their peers in other highly developed nations. In lieu of long or frequent vacations, Americans look toward federal holidays, switched in 1971 to Monday celebrations, to transform a number of traditional weekly breaks into three-day blocks. These three-day weekends have become prized times that help to punctuate the regular calendar for many Americans.

While the compartmentalization of leisure and work is clear, and its availability in smaller blocks also seems self-evident, there is an ongoing debate over whether these are good or bad developments. Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American stormed the early 1990s with a dystopian vision of the triumph of work over leisure, despite the promise of a coming golden age and the widespread availability of both necessities and laborsaving devices. Other scholars, such as Robinson and Godbey, later suggested that Schor's thesis was flawed, and that instead of having less time, more time was actually available in the many smaller blocks created by modern lifestyles.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether phenomena such as "home officing" and other work-away strategies, coupled with a myriad of smaller blocks of time will help society realize more leisure time or less. And the profusion of electronic technologies that have made all of these things possible have also made isolation, quiet, solitude, and complete separation from work an unknown for many contemporary Americans. It may be that what was once a dream, the seamless fusion of work and leisure experiences, may be realized as a curse of the modern age for some.

And when Americans do get free time, and despite the centrality of leisure in many Americans' lives, the duty of work can still trump the autonomy of leisure. On one hand, an individual's choice to participate in leisure time pursuits can still limit one's potential in the workplace, while on the other, forced leisure (for example, mandatory attendance for business socials, and the need to play for the company softball team) is still an expectation associated with some work environments. Corporate interests have even co-opted outdoor pursuits and exercise as they look toward recreation as a tool to build group cohesion and identity, reduce stress, and promote general wellness.

Amidst all this was an odd and emerging social trend in twenty-first century America: the radical anti-work movement. Not to be confused with right-to-work or livable wage movements, or advocacy for better, more meaningful work, this movement was highly antagonistic toward the entire prospect of traditional labor arrangements. Oftentimes tongue-in-cheek, occasionally serious, the movement was spearheaded by young adults who felt disenchanted with both their current jobs and their future prospects. The movie Office Space was both a cult favorite and rallying cry, while organizations such as the now-defunct Leisure Party and the West Coast group CLAWS (Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery) were formed, and slogans such as "F**K WORK" made it to print; all palpable elements of the movement's sentiments.

The pursuits Americans indulge in also reveal an amazing complexity of interests and values. While it is true that nonconsumptive outdoor pursuits, such as birding and backpacking, are on the rise, and while the number of nimrods is decreasing and anglers are encouraged to engage in "catch and release" practices, hunting and fishing are still staples of outdoor recreation, especially in regions such as the Midwest, the South, and the Mountain West. While not in the mainstream, real blood sports such as cock fighting persist into the new millennium in some parts of the country. And in the years after the American people were confronted with the dangers associated with poor diet, substance abuse, and unsafe sexual practices, so-called "purple" or taboo leisure remained popular across all social and economic classes.

The Puritans, who are so often seen as exemplars of America's early moralism, would also be gratified to see that recreation, religion, and spirituality are still very much intertwined. With more than 90 percent of Americans professing some type of religious belief or spiritual orientation, churches and other institutions remain powerful arbiters of what constitutes good and bad in terms of work and leisure for many citizens. Aside from attendance itself continuing to be a principal form of recreation for many Americans, modern church recreation has emerged as a youth-retention tool, and an alternative to more worldly temptations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an example of one religious group that actively promotes family leisure time, outdoor recreation, and play, as contributors to personal and community wellness. Many large contemporary Protestant churches, notably Methodist and Baptist congregations in the south, offer very active recreation programs that rival the scope and scale of municipal agencies.

It could be said that there is a new and healthy skepticism toward perceived views of work and leisure. Post-9/11 America experienced something of a return to home-centered leisure and church attendance, paired with a new introspection about life and priorities. But, again paradoxically, alongside the new skepticism is a new antinomianism (the belief that moral laws are relative in meaning and application as opposed to fixed or universal). While the 1980s saw a fitness craze, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a decrease in health club memberships coupled with an increase in obesity. Gluttony, substance abuse, and promiscuity all established themselves as continuing favorites on the American leisure menu.

But perhaps no area of contemporary leisure is as prominent, pervasive, and preeminent as sport in American society. At every level, sport is a social and economic powerhouse, with a nearly singular capacity to draw crowds and shift priorities. Called the new gladiators by some, there is a clear emphasis on watching, which was prefigured by several generations in Jay B. Nash's writings on "spectatoritis." While this emphasis is widely condemned, scholars such as Gibson, Willming, and Holdnak have observed that modern sport spectatorship provides for an important source of meaningful community and group identity that is not easily substituted for in the mass culture. Beyond all other leisure forms, sport does help to define American mass culture, a mass culture where community is transitory, fragile, and available for consumption.

The mass culture is not the only American culture however, and its values and priorities are not universal. The Amish are an example of an insular culture in which leisure and work are valued and not highly segmented, and where a pious mindfulness can be tolerant of adolescent experimentation. Work and leisure experiences have also been different for African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Appalachians, and many other subcultures. It is important to remember that the attitudes, values, and ethics that emerge from these experiences can be different, too.

It could also be said that the coexistence of so many different perspectives toward work and leisure define both America and the postmodern age. Tradition, innovation, controversy, and consensus coexist as Americans picnic, skydive, cock fight, and play sports. Americans participate together and separately, openly and alongside each other, and in privacy or even secrecy. There is, in a sense, a return to regionalism, both literally and metaphorically.

When one searched for early twenty-first century American attitudes toward work and leisure, what was found was a pastiche of moral, political, spiritual, and aesthetic orientations. Neo-puritanism coexisted with hedonism; there were still Americans promoting a leisure-centered society, just as there were still "workaholics." Many 1980s-style yuppies (a term that comes from the phrase "Young Upwardly-mobile Person") merely morphed into more hip and contemporary twenty-first century BOBOs (Bourgeois Bohemians). In short, when looking for definitive American attitudes, values, and ethics toward work and leisure, what one sees may depend on who is looking.

See also: Blood Sports; Leisure, Theory of; Puritans at Leisure; Southern America Leisure Lifestyles; Vacations


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