Inspiration from the Past: Be Less Productive

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The last century witnessed multiple calls for shorter work days (8 hours!) and more vacation time; this century we’ve been focussed on helping companies make more money. We presently live in a culture that values “productivity” over all else and many take it as a point of pride that they have little leisure time. What if we changed that and set our sites on making our working lives easier? That’s the question being asked over at The Week, and it’s worth considering.

I am struck by this unquestioning assumption that people ought to make their choices based on “business logic.” Is the idea that the government ought to help us carve out the time and space to dip our toes in the ocean or watch birds at the park just for the sake of it so inappropriate or bizarre?

It wasn’t always this way. More than 100 years ago, states began listening to workers’ demands and limiting the hours employers could make people work. Later, in the 1930s and ’40s, the federal government did the same thing on the national level. And governments didn’t just guarantee people the free time to pay attention to things one might deem “unproductive” — they also helped them find unproductive things to do. Indeed, early 20th-century political leaders made playgrounds and public spaces a priority. Teddy Roosevelt, who helped create the national parks system, ensuring Americans’ access to wild and beautiful places, frequently described the power of nature in decidedly non-instrumental terms. “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm,” he once wrote.

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