In many countries throughout the world the pension-age is set to rise. Germany, for sale the US and Australia all seem intent on raising their pension ages to 67 and it seems Ireland are on track to follow suit and could go even further.
One of the reasons held by governments as justification for this decision is the fact that people now are living much longer lives. Life expectancy has drastically increased over the last few decades, and with this increase comes the expectation that this longer life span will consist of more years of economically fruitful labour. Of course the government desire such an outcome, but the more fundamental question to ask is, do we desire it? Why is there a belief that work must be the predominant facet of our lives? Why has labour become the measure by which a fulfilled life is judged? What has happened to leisure? What has happened to living?
It may seem obvious, but it is important to state one thing clearly before we progress: there is more to life than just making money. The ancients seemed to understand this better than anyone. It was Plato who said we are never more human than when we are at leisure. In fact it was Plato who encouraged the people of Athens to sing and dance and enjoy festivities of all sorts. Today, however, working oneself to the bone is something to be admired, a ‘good days work’ is a ‘hard days work’ – something to marvel at and respect, and while no one can doubt the necessity of work, many doubt the necessity of leisure.
Let us examine the nature of leisure more thoroughly. Leisure in Greek is skole, which we can translate in English to ‘school’. So it appears that at it’s origin, leisure was not to be associated with laziness or sloth. Yet, this is how leisure time has come to be seen. It has progressively come to be regarded as ‘down time’ as opposed to the real time and space for working. Today, work is for activity while leisure is for rest. It is not seen as something in itself; as something useful, beneficial or something that contains within it knowledge to be learned. Instead, it is down time aimed almost solely at preparing us mentally and physically for the next day of ‘real’ work.
But what if it is during times of leisure that real value can be found? What if it is during times of leisure that we are elevated to greatness? If this leisure time is what the Ancients thought it should be, then it is a time for reflection and insight, a time to contemplate things of true value. It is during this time the realisation may dawn that life is more than work; that each day is more valuable than the work that defines it. A sense of the greater purpose of life may be discovered. The problem seems to be though, that these thoughts cannot hatch because there is no leisure time in which they can grow. Our ‘free’ time has become alienated by the pressures and dominance of work, and so it is experienced in an alienated way.
University education has also been infected by this denial of leisure. The usefulness of a degree stands in direct correlation to the job it can procure. In Newman’s time the aim of a university degree was to help young people become gentlemen and gentlewomen; people with the capacity to think in a liberated manner and to appreciate the potential that knowledge can yield. Today that concept would seem absurd and wholly out-dated. That kind of view would mean that education is more than just work. It would mean that education is a form of leisure. Students are cogs in the great wheel of economic production. We are the oil that keeps the machine going. We are the products of what Walter Benjamin called the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’. And we are being encouraged to think that this is precisely what will guarantee a successful, comfortable, profitable, lucrative and beneficial middle class life. Is that all we are happy believing is out there?
There is no doubt that use-value is very important in society. If work is useful then it is worth doing. And although we may wonder here what it exactly is that correlates to ‘usefulness’, the general perspective in modern society appears as: if it generates money then it is ‘good’. Whether or not this work brings with it happiness or enjoyment is secondary at best. While this mantra may guarantee fiscal success, it does not make for the fruits of a healthy culture. Society deems leisure as entertainment and thus finds another way to commodify our lives. The projected image and ‘bought structure’ of leisure time is that we must pay to take part in it. But leisure is not entertainment. It is not something that can be consumed or purchased. It cannot be watched or heard. What it is does not require anything but a human heart and mind. True leisure is participation in the authenticity of life. It is about being fruitful rather than successful, receiving rather than achieving.
By increasing the pension age the importance of leisure in a person’s life is being neglected. The German philosopher Josef Pieper said that leisure is the foundation of culture. If our culture chooses to ignore this then the future does not look all that ‘profitable’. Maybe what we do when the working day ends is just as important as the work. Maybe it is during this time that the importance of leisure can be apprehended. In order to apprehend this though, time for leisure must be found.