“Having had to cut the book nearly in half for the final proof,” writes Benjamin Kline Hunnicut in the introduction to Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream (Temple University Press ), “I am keenly aware of things omitted, still on my computer’s hard drive awaiting publication.” This is offered as an apology, though none is needed. Excessive leanness must be the least common fault in scholarly prose – and Free Time deserves laurels for not imposing too much on the scarce resource in question.
The author teaches at the University of Iowa, where he holds the enviable post of professor of leisure studies. He has devoted the better part of 40 years – including two previous books – to investigating the sources and implications of something both obvious and overlooked about the American work week.
Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, working people fought for, and won, more free time -- despite the dire mutterings by the pundits, who announced that economic collapse and social turmoil were sure to follow if employees worked for only, say, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. By the 1930s, the combination of increased industrial productivity and collective bargaining made the trend for an ever-shorter work week seem irreversible. The demands of war production didn’t erase the expectation that the 40-hour week would shrink to 30, after peace came.
It did, in some places. For example, Hunnicutt and his students have interviewed retired factory workers from Akron, Ohio and Battle Creek, Michigan who won the six-hour day, once the war was over. And the social forecasts and magazine think-pieces from the 1960s and ‘70s made it sound like the great challenge of the future would be coping with all the free time created by automation and computerization.
Like hover-car collisions and overbooked hotels on the moon, the extremely shortened work week turns out not to be a major 21st-century social issue, after all. “Since the mid-1970s,” Hunnicutt says, “we have been working longer and longer each year, about a half a percentage point more from year to year….” It adds up. Americans now log an average 199 hours -- almost five 40-hour work weeks -- more per year than they did in 1973 – putting in “longer hours than those of other modern industrial nations, with the exception of South Korea,” according to the findings of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2009.
The point here is not that extrapolation is unreliable -- or even that seriously regressive trends can begin to seem normal after a generation or two. Hunnicutt begins his broad narrative of how things got like this in the 18th century, with a comment by Benjamin Franklin: “If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life, want and misery would be banished out of the world, and the rest of the 24 hours might be leisure and happiness.”
Tracing this sentence back to its original context, I found it appeared in a letter  expressing Franklin’s criticism of how much labor and effort went into producing luxury goods for conspicuous consumption. Millions, he wrote, were “employed in doing nothing, or in something that amounts to nothing, when the necessaries  and conveniences of life are in question.” It is a good thing the man is dead; five minutes in an American shopping center would kill him.
In Hunnicutt’s reading, the passage is a particularly blunt expression of a perspective or set of values he calls the Higher Progress. The goal of economic development was not just to produce “necessaries and comforts of life” in abundance and affordably – that, too, of course -- but to give people the free time to enjoy what they’d made, as well as one another’s company, and to secure the general welfare through lifelong education and civic involvement. The same vision is expressed by Walt Whitman, Frank Lloyd Wright, “factory girls” writing to newspapers in the 1840s, and Robert Maynard Hutchins’s proposals for university reform. In a book published when he was president of the University Chicago, Hutchins described progress as having three stages:
“We want our private and individual good, our economic well-being… Second, we want the common good: peace, order, and justice. But most of all we want a third order of good, our personal or human good. We want, that is, to achieve the limit of our moral, intellectual, and spiritual powers.”
That “we” is not aristocratic. The examples of Higher Progress thinking that Free Time cites are profoundly democratic in temper. For every patrician worrying that more leisure would just lead to drunkenness and loutish habits, Hunnicutt seems to quote five plebians saying they wanted the time for “the ‘wants’ that were being repressed by long hours: reading newspapers and books, visiting and entertaining at home, writing letters, voting, cultivating flowers, walking with the family, taking baths, going to meetings, and enjoying works of art.”
The Higher Progress was hardly inevitable. Following the Civil War, Walt Whitman, whose poetry often seems the outpouring of a blithe spirit with a caffeine buzz, sounded almost desperate at the scene before him. Despite the country’s technological progress and material abundance, “our New World democracy … is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, and literary results.”
As was his wont, Whitman seems to speak directly to the reader, across the decades, in warning about the danger of fetishizing all our stuff and gizmos: “a secret silent loathing and despair.” A steadily growing GNP would not necessarily prevent the Higher Progress, but consumerism (in the form Franklin criticized as “luxury”) was all too likely to substitute itself for leisure, in the richest possible sense of the word.
So where did things go off track? Why is it that one of the arguments made for the sheer practicality of a shorter work week – that it would reduce joblessness – seems never to have been made given recent unemployment figures? What did the men and women who won 30-hour week in the 1940s respond to the free time?
Free Time addresses all of these questions, or at least points in directions where the answers might be found. But in honor of the author’s own sacrifice – and in hopes of encouraging you to read the book – I am going to make this column half as long as it might well be. It deserves wide attention, and would provoke a more meaningful conversation about the past, present, and future than we’re likely to have otherwise.