Somewhere along the line, we came off the rails. The most admired Victorian legislation reduced working hours. The Factory Act of 1847, for example, restricted the working day for women and children to 10 hours. Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler magazine and Academy, traces the honourable history of not working all the time. “Until the Reformation, life was supposed to be about contemplation, philosophy and the intelligent use of leisure. In ancient Athena, the idea was to be a philosopher in your spare time. In Greek, the word school [skole] means leisure.”
The aspiration lingered in our politics. Hodgkinson cited Oscar Wilde’s essay of 1891, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (“It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure”) and John Maynard Keynes’s essay of 1930, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. That means us, by the way, since the essay was a prediction of society in 2030. “Science and compound interest,” Keynes believed, would ensure we could “devote our energies to non-economic purposes.” Some might still want to work, but a 15-hour week “would be quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!” I’ll throw in Winston Churchill, who, in the booming 50s, predicted “a four-day week, then three days’ fun” for British workers.