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There was a time, not so long ago, when mankind looked forward to a new Age of Leisure. Machines promised to liberate everyone from the drudgery of work. Sure, we might have put in the odd shift at the office or factory, monitoring screens, twiddling dials, signing invoices, but the rest of the day would be spent hanging out and having fun. With so much free time on our hands, words like “hurry” and “haste” would eventually fall out of the language.

Benjamin Franklin was among the first to envision a world devoted to rest and relaxation. Inspired by the technological breakthroughs of the latter 1700s, he predicted that man would soon work no more than four hours a week. The 19th century made that prophecy look foolishly naive. In the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, men, women and even children toiled for 15 hours a day. Yet at the end of the 19th century, the Age of Leisure popped up once again on the cultural radar. George Bernard Shaw predicted that we would work two hours a day by 2000.

The dream of limitless leisure persisted through the 20th century. Dazzled by the magical promise of technology, the man in the street dreamed of a life spent lounging by the pool, waited on by robots that not only mixed a mean martini but also kept the economy ticking over nicely. In 1956, Richard Nixon told Americans to prepare for a four-day workweek in the “not too distant future.” A decade later, a US Senate subcommittee heard that by 2000 Americans would be working as little as 14 hours per week. Even in the 1980s, some predicted that robotics and computers would give us all more free time than we would know what to do with.

Could they have been more wrong? If we can be sure about anything in the 21st century, it is that reports of the death of work have been greatly exaggerated. Today, the Age of Leisure looks as feasible as the paperless office. Most of us are more likely to put in a 14-hour day than a 14-hour week. Work devours the bulk of our waking hours. Everything else in life—family and friends, sex and sleep, hobbies and holidays—is forced to bend around the almighty work schedule.

Behind the statistical averages, the grim truth is that the millions of people are actually working longer and harder than they want to, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. One in four Canadians now racks up more than 50 hours a week on the job, compared to one in ten in 1991. By 2002, one in five thirtysomething Britons was working at least 60 hours a week. And that’s before one adds in the long hours we spend commuting.

Whatever happened to the Age of Leisure? Why are so many of us still working so hard?

Beyond the great productivity debate lies what may be the most important question at all: What is life for? Most people would agree that work is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies and rest.

For the Slow movement, the workplace is a key battlefront. When the job gobbles up so many hours, the time left over for everything else gets squeezed. Even the simple things—taking the kids to school, eating supper, chatting to friends—become a race against the clock. A surefire way to slow down is to work less. And that is exactly what millions of people around the world are seeking to do.

Everywhere, and especially in the long-hours economies, polls show a yearning to spend less time on the job. In a recent international survey by economists at Warwick University and Dartmouth College, 70 percent of people in 27 countries said they wanted a better work-life balance. In the US, the backlash against workaholism is gathering steam. More and more blue-chip firms, from Starbucks to Walmart, face lawsuits from staff allegedly forced to put in unpaid overtime. Americans are snapping up books that show how a more leisurely approach to work, and to life in general, can bring happiness and success. Recent titles include The Lazy Way to Success, The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success andThe Importance of Being Lazy. In 2003, US campaigners for shorter working hours held the first national Take Back Your Time Day on October 24, the date when, according to some estimates, Americans have worked as much as Europeans do in a year.

For many French people, the weekend now starts on Thursday, or ends on Tuesday. Legions of office staff desert their desks at 3 p.m. While some use the extra leisure timeto veg out—sleeping or watching TV—many more have broadened their horizons. Enrollment in art, music and language classes has risen sharply. Tour operators report a boom in short trips to London, Barcelona and other European hot spots.

Bars and bistros, cinemas and sports clubs are packed with people. The surge in leisure spending gave the economy a much-needed shot in the arm. But beyond the economic numbers, the shorter workweek has revolutionized people’s lives. Parents spend longer playing hours with their children, friends see each other more often, couples have more time for romance. Even that favorite French pastime, adultery, has benefited. Paul, a married accountant in southern France, tells me that the 35-hour workweek allows him to indulge in an extra tryst each month with his mistress. “If cutting the workload gives more time for love, then it has to be a good thing, n’est-ce pas?” he says, with a wolfish grin.

So the Cassandras who warned that the 35-hour week would send the French economy into instant meltdown have been proved wrong. The gross domestic product has grown, and unemployment, though still above the EU average, has fallen. Productivity also remains high. Indeed, some evidence suggests that many French workers are more productive now. With less time on the job and more leisure to look forward to, they make greater efforts to finish their work before clocking off.

Yet working less is just part of the Slow blueprint. People also want to decide when they work. They want control over their own time—and businesses who grant it to them are reaping the benefits. In our time-is-money culture, giving workers dominion over the clock goes against the grain. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the norm has been to pay people for the hours they spend on the job rather than for what they produce. But rigid timetables are out of step with the information economy, where the boundary between work and play is much more blurred than it was in the 19th century. Many modern jobs depend on the kind of creative thinking that seldom occurs at a desk and cannot be squeezed into fixed schedules. Letting people choose their own hours, or judging them on what they achieve rather than on how long they spend achieving it, can deliver the flexi-bility that many of us crave.

Studies show that people who feel in control of their time are more relaxed, creative and productive. In 2000, a British energy company hired management consultants to streamline the shift system at its call center. Almost overnight, productivity nose-dived, customer complaints shot up and staff began leaving. By denying employees a say in when they worked, the new regime had ruined morale. Realizing its mistake, the company promptly gave the staff more control over its shifts, and soon the call center was more productive than ever. Many of the workers said that having “time autonomy” at work helped them feel less hurried and stressed both on and away from the job. Karen Domaratzki bears witness to that at Royal Bank of Canada: “When you have control over your own time, you feel more calm in everything you do.”

Of course, giving people control over their own time in the workplace will require a seismic shift in thinking. But where practical, it can—and should—be done. If deployed in the right spirit, information technology can help us do it. Instead of using Blackberrys, laptops and cell phones to extend the workday, we can use them to rearrange it. Many companies are already ceding more time autonomy to their staff. In the UK, for example, British Telecom, Bayer and Lloyds TSB now allow employees to customize their own schedules: to work from home, say, or to come in and leave the office at more convenient hours. Though it naturally lends itself more to white-collar work, time autonomy is also making inroads in the blue-collar world. Some Swiss watch factories have rearranged production to allow workers on a single shift to vary their start and finish times by up to three hours. In Gloucestershire, a nylon factory lets the staff set its own hours as long as at least two workers are on duty at all times.

Companies are also moving to make work less of a 24/7 treadmill. The accountancy firm Ernst & Young recently told its US employees that it was okay not to check email and voice mail over the weekend. In a similar vein, stressed-out executives are taking the heretical step of turning off their cell phones outside the office. Jill Hancock, a go-getting investment banker in London, used to take her chic, chrome-plated Nokia everywhere, and even answered calls on vacation or in the middle of a romantic dinner. She paid the price, though, in depression and chronic fatigue. When a psychologist diagnosed “mobile phone addiction” and urged her to switch off from time to time, Hancock was appalled. But eventually she gave it a try, first silencing the Nokia during her lunch break, and later on evenings and weekend when an urgent call was unlikely. Within two months, she was off the antidepressants, her skin had cleared up and she was getting more work done in less time. At the bank, her colleagues accept that Hancock is no longer reachable around the clock. A few have even followed her example. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that I was always available, always on, was grinding me down,” she says. “We all need time to ourselves.” Decelerating at work also prompted Hancock to make more room for Slow pursuits in the rest of her life. She has taken up yoga and now cooks a real supper, instead of a microwaved meal, at least two evenings a week.

To avoid burnout, and to promote creative thinking, business gurus, therapists and psychologists increasingly prescribe doses of slowness for the workplace. In his best-selling 2002 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Working So Damn Hard, Robert Kriegel suggested taking regular 15- to 20-minute time-outs during the day. Dr. Donald Hensrud, director of the Mayo Clinic Executive Health Program, advises, “Try shutting your office door and closing your eyes for 15 minutes. Lean back and breathe deeply.”

Other people are taking deceleration to its ultimate conclusion and actually catching 40 winks during the working day. Though sleeping on the job is the ultimate taboo, research has shown that a short “power nap”—around 20 minutes is ideal—can boost energy and productivity. A recent study by NASA concluded that 24 minutes of shut-eye did wonders for a pilot’s alertness and performance. Many of the most vigorous and successful figures in history were inveterate nappers: John F. Kennedy, Thomas Edison, Napoleon Bonaparte, John D. Rockefeller, Johannes Brahms. Winston Churchill delivered the most eloquent defense of the afternoon snooze: “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion helped by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half.”

“Whatever happened to the Age of Leisure? Why are so many of us still working so hard?”

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Article from Kinfolk

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