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Stop laboring on Labor Day [Commentary]

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Ask some neighbors or colleagues about their Labor Day weekend tomorrow, and prepare to hear how busy it was. Several malls featured back to school sales, kids had a baseball tournament, lots of e-mails to catch up with at work, and the house needed some cleaning. We're too busy, goes the lament, to enjoy free time.

Yet social scientists claim that the average work week for full-time employees since 1970 has fluctuated between 39 and 41 hours. This claim does include a range of variations. For every doctor or police officer who puts in an extra shift, there is a nurse or computer technician who puts in three 12-hour days or four 9-hour days. The point is that more and more people claim they have less free time while statistics show that time at the workplace is about the same as our parents and grandparents.

Several factors might account for this discrepancy. One, sometimes we just like to complain or embellish. We want others to know that what we do is so important or meaningful. Weekends have a purpose, vacations are educational, school breaks are structured, and kids are supported at extracurricular events — with parents in dutiful attendance to shout "good job."

Fueling these accounts is the sense that "24/7" is the new normal. Ostensibly labor-saving technologies appear to have misled or beguiled us. Take technology for example. Instead of providing more leisure, computers and the Web and social media are among so many e-venues that promise to save work while actually creating more of it. With the Internet, shopping, updating LinkedIn profiles, checking investment opportunities or researching better ways to raise your kids are always within reach — as are time-eating lists of worst animal breeds and cute baby videos. They often comprise the busy moments of days like today, which is meant to be free.

We are never "off" anymore, with email and Twitter and Facebook readily accessible right on our phones. We check messages on vacation and during cocktail hours, in case a supervisor has raised a last minute concern; and we read headlines while watching our kids play.

The separation of work and play, both in terms of time and space, has become blurred. Labor Day, originally meant to honor workers with a new leisure day, is no longer a break from being busy. It is a continuation.

The car too is a culprit in this. People drive more than ever. The typical 15 minute commute in 1970 has turned into an hour commute. Traffic congestion is no longer limited to rush hour, as weekend roads are jammed with shoppers, travelers, truckers and parents hauling their kids to sundry events. Hours in the car neither counts as work time nor as leisure time. Even if we tend to exaggerate our sense of being busy, there is considerable evidence that leisure time in American culture has eroded.

Perhaps a small step toward countering this: a day (or weekend) of sloth. Sloth has a notorious reputation. Early moralists considered it the deadliest of the classic seven deadly sins. Its Latin term, "acedia," meant lack of uplifting purpose or spiritual direction. Benjamin Franklin conferred on time financial worth, so to waste time was to waste money. And children for centuries have been told that idle hands are the devil's tool kit, of which today's casinos are a perfect illustration.

Sloth, however, has its virtues. It speaks of a time that belongs to us. Many artists, scientists and scholars claim that some of their best insights arrived when idle, day dreaming or taking a walk. We might restore the sense of sloth that is, according to historian Aviad Kleinberg, optimistic. It respectfully encourages fellow citizens to enjoy a sense of free time without designed purposes and lasting rewards. And this enjoyment is unplugged to Internet, auto traffic and work.

Replacing Labor Day with Sloth Day could be a modest step toward reviving the valuable time of leisure when we can do anything we want — or do nothing at all.

Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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