The leisure revolution that never came

Updated: Apr 08, 2014 9:40 PM UTC

FORTUNE -- It seemed like simple math. In the decades after World War II, American workers were becoming ever more productive. With technology reducing the need for manual labor and better-skilled workers producing more in less time, many assumed workweeks would fall to 24 hours, if not lower. People in the future would fret about their abundance of leisure. A famous 1959 Harvard Business Review article argued that boredom -- once the province of aristocrats -- was becoming a common curse.

But in March 1970, Fortune ran an article by Gilbert Burck with a different message: Not so fast. Titled “There’ll Be Less Leisure Than You Think,” the feature explained that while experts claimed “work will practically wither away, leaving us with an abundance of everything, notably free time,” the reality was this: “No such luck.”

Burck argued that more people were going to be working in services (health care, education) and government, and these sectors weren’t as amenable to productivity gains as manufacturing. Whether you agree with that or not, though, certainly few Americans living in 2014 think they have the kind of abundance of free time that futurists predicted. “The prospect of greatly reducing the hours on life’s treadmills remains mainly a prospect,” Burck wrote. “For a long time we’ll probably have to work as hard as ever.”

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Why is that? Well, it’s complicated. Despite popular perception, Americans actually work fewer hours today than they did in the 1970s, when Burck wrote his piece. The average hours worked per year have fallen from about 1,800 in 1972 to about 1,700 in 2011. However, that figure declined twice as fast between 1953 and 1972. The slowing decline and comparisons to other countries with shorter work years (e.g. France) contribute to the perception that Americans toil away, even if the average workweek (34.2 hours, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) isn’t that onerous.

There is some evidence of bifurcation in the labor force, too. “Averages mask what’s really happening,” says Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter whose new book, Overwhelmed, discusses Americans’ perception of time. One of the lingering woes of the recession is the high “U-6” number, a measure of unemployment that includes people working part-time when they’d prefer full-time work. Underemployed workers have lots of leisure -- but it’s hard to enjoy it when you feel strapped.

On the upper rungs of the income ladder, many believe that they are working ever-more hours. Goldman Sachs (GS), for instance, made headlines last fall with its new policy that bankers shouldn’t work on weekends. Some of this, too, is potentially more perception than reality. An article in the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review that compared people’s estimated workweeks with time diaries found that those claiming they work extreme hours (75 hours or more) were generally off by about 25 hours a week.

Nonetheless, there is a leisure gap. One study found that highly educated (and generally higher-earning) men saw their leisure decline by 1.2 hours per week between 1985 and 2007, while lesser educated (and generally lower-earning) men saw their work hours rise by 2.5 hours per week.

Since the lives of professionals dominate the cultural narrative, the popular perception is that Americans have no leisure time. “A lot of what is leisure is really in the eye of the beholder,” says Schulte, and with people capable of checking in with work at any time, many professionals don’t feel relaxed. “Gadgets have sort of polluted our time in a way,” she says. “It’s really fragmented in bits and pieces so it doesn’t feel refreshing.”

To be sure, even with the decline in leisure, highly educated men still enjoyed 33.2 hours per week of free time in 2007. And according to the 2012 American Time Use Survey, Americans who work full-time still manage to watch 1.82 hours of TV on weekdays and 3.05 hours on weekends. That people might check email once during commercials doesn’t change this.

Still, Americans did not substitute leisure for income to the degree they might have. An average workweek of 34 hours is a far cry from the three-day week (24 hours) that some were predicting in 1970 when Burck wrote his article.

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This brings the story back to those sectors Burck claimed weren’t going to achieve the same productivity gains. Americans are spending ever more on health care and education. Total health care spending rose from 4.6% of GDP in 1960 to 9.5% in 1985, and 16.4% in 2011. College costs have risen fivefold since 1985.

Wages, on the other hand, have not grown as much. “The vast majority of people are not seeing income gains,” notes David Rosnick, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. For many households, improvements “have been coming from introducing second workers. If that’s how people are increasing their incomes, they’re going to resist having their hours cut. That’s the only reason they’re making progress in the first place,” he says. Having less money and more time is an option, but “if people are struggling to get by, that’s not an appealing message to hear.”

Looking forward from 1970, Burck adopted a rueful tone about all this. Sure, things would be better in the U.S. than in the Soviet Union. But, “the unhappy fact is that not everybody can yet buy everything he needs, to say nothing of everything he wants. The U.S. is and will remain a ‘scarcity’ economy.”