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Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders

DOUG SAUNDERS

Work? Leisure? It’s all a blur these days Add to ...

If you want to understand the dramatic changes taking place in the world of work and play, consider that it was only recently that we started smiling.

According to historian Colin Jones, the first recorded smiles were cracked at the end of the 18th century. Before, in antiquity and in medieval and early modern times, the notion of revealing one’s teeth was considered unspeakably vulgar; we didn’t have words or concepts, in most languages, to describe the act.

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In his new history The Smile Revolution, he attributes the emergence of smiling (it grew slowly and exploded in the 20th century) to a revolt against tradition, to the rise of dentistry, and especially to what he describes as a “shift in social practices and in sensibilities.” Suddenly, people were spending spare time in non-work, non-religious environments – coffee houses, salons, promenades – which “provided an accommodating framework for face-to-face encounters in which a smiling demeanour prevailed.” Suddenly, in other words, people had something called “spare time,” and needed smiles to fill it.

Something else emerged to fill that space: boredom. Historians have searched centuries of literature and found that being bored was not something anyone described until the Industrial Revolution came along. After that, it rose in prominence until peaking in the 20th century. As Patricia Meyer Spacks, one of a surprising number of boredom scholars, has noted, boredom appeared when people’s lives were no longer dominated by toil, sacrifice and religion. “Our modern concept of boredom,” writes journalist Lucy Scholes, “was born at the same time as that of the invention of leisure.”

That history-changing invention – of a dividing line between “work” and “leisure” – has defined our lives for the past two centuries. It gave us not just smiles and boredom, but mass entertainment, the novel (the first place to describe boredom and smiles), the dominant middle class, the revolution in private property, modern industry, the pension, the rise of universal suffrage, and, not incidentally, the weekend (and, after subsequent struggle, the long weekend).

If the two-century-old division of life into spheres of work and non-work caused such a dramatic change to just about everything in the way we live, act, behave and even appear, how profound will be the effects if that division just as suddenly were to end?

We ought to ask, because it appears to be taking place.

The world is undergoing twin revolutions in work and in non-work. The so-called “Fordist” era of employment, named after Henry Ford’s popularization of full-time, five-day-a-week, lifelong shift jobs with benefits, is waning, eclipsed by a huge rise in informal, part-time or self-employed work among people across the income spectrum.

Around the world, working-age people with full-time jobs (and therefore weekends and distinct non-work time) are now a minority: According to a new survey of 136,000 people in 136 countries by Gallup, 26 per cent of working people “worked full-time for an employer in 2013.” In India, nearly three of four are informally employed, according to the national statistics agency, either doing day-by-day piecework or buying and selling things.

In Canada, while 80 per cent of employment remains full-time and middle-class incomes are growing, almost all new employment growth in 2013 was in part-time sectors. This isn’t necessarily negative – much of it has to do with the entry of women into the work force, and the flourishing of non-full-time work can help.

But for millions, it means that the dividing line between working time and leisure time is becoming vague or non-existent. For professional and creative-class workers, it increasingly means that our mobile devices are bringing work into the evenings, weekends and lunch breaks (and forcing leisure-time decisions into the office).

For lower-income workers, even nominally full-time ones, technology is eroding this dividing line in crueller ways. A New York Times investigation last month revealed that most part-time employers now use shift-scheduling software that gives a majority of workers less than a week’s notice, and often only one or two days’ notice, of their impending hours. “It’s becoming more and more common to put employees in a very uncertain and tenuous position with respect to their schedules, and that ricochets if workers have families or other commitments,” California congressman George Miller told the newspaper.

It means that for most people, the distinction between “at work” and “at leisure” is getting blurred. As a result, we may soon discover a new mood, and a new facial expression, to fill this grey area.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

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