The Emergence of Leisure

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In prehistoric times, only young humans are seen to be playing and frolicking. Much the same as any other animal. The older females were gathering, the older males roamed on their lonesome, or hunted on behalf of their tribe. Once the sun went down, the new young and old alike went to sleep. Although, some will argue that the aforementioned facts are a bit skewed from the truth, this assessment is correct in broad strokes, and allows us to make the point that even expending all of their time and energy on gathering food and caring for young, there were still hard times when a tribe of early humans would go hungry, die early, and generally not enjoying any free time. It was hand-to-mouth existence. Since then, it can be argued, things have improved. With agriculture and specialization having a powerful effect on society, more and more of our time is available for activities other than hunting, gathering and child rearing. What we have chosen to do with this time is a fascinating and broad topic that we will but scratch the surface of, and only in the North American context.


Leisure, exploration and frolicking are the domain of children, and juvenile animals. As tribes banded together and became villages, undertaking civilization and changing from nomadic societies to agricultural societies, childhood extended and stretched out into the near reaches of adolescence. Going to parties, balls and dances are a form of play, a simulated social encounter with opponents from the opposite sex, with relatively low stakes (although the embarrassment of rejection certainly feels life or death, when you’re pubescent) and most importantly, featured the promise of fun, of play. These simple pleasures are the obvious analogues to the wild and real-life counterparts of meeting and courting a mate. Let us now look at more complicated forms of play.


As soon as basic shelter and tools for agriculture have been manufactured, and basic needs have been met, human instinct immediately prompted our ancestors to improve upon the design of a field plow beyond it’s essential utility: for enjoyment, for art. Similarly, as soon as a roof over your head stops the rain, you begin to decorate it, personalize it, and embed your creative identity into it. Work became, in part, a kind of play. Where does exploration come in?

As soon as humans began to explore, we began to have the tools to explore (forms of transport) in order to travel. Perhaps at first this was in search of water, or a more abundant source of food. But before long, we were travelling for the joy of it; another form of play. And as soon as we began to travel, we began to explore beyond our surrounding area. In this way, work also evolved into play.


Soon, our collective abilities far outstripped any basic need, and entire groups of the population (at least, in North America) are free to spend almost all of their time (by relative standards) doing as they please, pursuing work only when it’s play to them, exploring and travelling continuously (at least, before COVID-19 closed down international travel), and living a life of leisure. To a lesser extent, the majority of Americans have a taste of this life, as they’re able to eat foods purely for pleasure daily, they’d be able to exercise regularly not to produce work, but for the enjoyment and improvement of their bodies. They are able to partake in imaginary simulated warfare, whether playing sports, playing computer games, or entering chess competitions. Even further removed from work, we often sit one layer back in abstraction, content to remotely watch other tribes of humans competing with each other in a simulated warfare competition (otherwise known as streaming sports). Higher and higher levels of abstraction present, until our play is so complex, and so detailed that it would appear to be the most complicated work of an other-worldly being, to a prehistoric human.

The future

If this trend continues, will all of our society be devoted to leisure? And is it such a bad thing? If everyone is enjoying themselves, and not wasting their time, is it not a net benefit to society? Perhaps we could cut even more time from work, and spend even more time on leisure, today, without further technological advancement. But we have a hint of what this may lead to: obesity, laziness, and lack of initiative. These are the first signs of the upcoming crisis. The leisure crisis. Imagine a future where people have so much free time that they have outgrown the need for the structure, discipline, and motivation that work brings. Perhaps we’re already there, in some parts of the world.

But is life then only meaningful when you’re working? The authors claim that it is not. Leisure time is not an end in itself, leisure is to be spent on productive pursuits, and as such, these pursuits are to be done in a fulfilling, satisfying, life-improving manner, while at the same time, being enjoyable. In other words, productivity is not an inherent value in itself, productivity is an instrumental value. You don’t do something because it’s productive, you do it because it’s fun, and may bring you (or others) more enjoyment later.


The need for work and play will never go away. Humans, unlike any other known species, take pleasure in working. The production of utility, and the enjoyment of leisure are intertwined, and both are vital to the health of society and each individual. In a future where we spend less time working, we need not worry about the loss of purpose and meaning in life, as we will continue to find it in work, and in play.