Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 13 August 2008

A leisure class can accommodate the workaholics of wisdom

One of the great paradoxes, for most of us, is the hatred of work, and the need for it to fill what Dr Johnson called ‘the great vacancies of life’. We sigh for leisure, then don’t know how to handle it when it comes in abundance. Occupation is wearisome, but essential, and retirement is longed-for but disappointing. A typical example was Charles Lamb. During the 33 years he worked at the East India House he perpetually grumbled about the way his work gobbled up the best hours of each day and left him tired and listless, with virtually nothing for himself and his pleasures. Once retired, on a generous pension, he grumbled about lack of occupation — see his essays ‘The Superannuated Man’ and ‘Popular Fallacies; That We Should Rise with the Lark’. As his most devoted biographer, E.V. Lucas wrote, the history of his life, between retirement in 1825 and his death in 1834, ‘makes sad reading’. Often he was alone, lacking any fixed purpose, sick and dejected.

I have been looking at some American statistics about the growth of leisure, not only in retirement but throughout working life. Their experience usually adumbrates ours, by a few years, so it is a common transatlantic problem. In 1870 Americans (on average) started work at 13 and had 30.5 years of it. Since life expectancy was only 43.5 years, they had no retirement period. So 61 per cent of their waking life was spent working. All the same, in a lifetime they had 99,016 hours of waking leisure, more than the 93,604 hours they spent on the job. In 2007 the average figures tell a startlingly different story. The age for starting work is 20, life expectancy is 78, the retirement age on average is 62.5

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