Skip to main content

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.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading…

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.