Less than a month in office as prime minister of Finland, and the world’s youngest serving head of government has spoken up for leisure. Sanna Marin’s call for a four-day working week is not ground-breaking, because a movement for fewer work hours has been building up for years in the more prosperous economies. But it is particularly thought-provoking because Marin represents the very generation which will live through a massive disruption in the idea of work, brought on by automation, artificial intelligence and concern for the environment. It will alter perceptions of many values of society, including that of identity. The political implications could be immense.
Since the dawn of settled living, professions have conferred identity, and even surnames like Carpenter and Smith. But if leisure and culture become as important as work, people who work as engineers may prefer to self-identify as painters or immersive gamers. How would such reassignments alter social relations? Besides, the effects of less work and more culture are not necessarily benign. In The Machine Stops, perhaps his only science fiction story, EM Forster portrayed a future society organised around the solitary production and consumption of culture. And when the machine that delivers culture globally stops, lives collapse. And anyway, less work and more personal time would seem like science fiction to the majority of the world’s population, who are compelled to work for a living — literally, to stay alive.
Nevertheless, a head of government in a welfare state supporting the idea of more leisure is a sign of change. As Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, “In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men’s eyes.” The leisure class he studied was built on exploitation, but the technological future could be different.
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