A Cultural History of Work in the Modern Age
A Cultural History of Work in the Modern Age

Daniel J. Walkowitz

Daniel J. Walkowitz is Professor Emeritus of Social and Cultural Analysis and Professor Emeritus of History at New York University, USA. Among his recent books are Working With Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity (1999), City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America (2014) and The Remembered and Forgotten Jewish World: Jewish Heritage in Europe and the United States (2018). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2019


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Work and Leisure

DOI: 10.5040/9781350078352.ch-010
Page Range: 157–172

In 1950 David Riesman published The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. To understand how Americans internalized their behavior Riesman compared the nineteenth century when parents and other adults shaped a child’s socialization to the mid-twentieth century when a child’s socialization became contingent on peer groups and the media. Riesman’s discussion about American character also highlighted the shift from a culture of production and scarcity to one of consumption, the question of middle-class conformity, and the lack of workplace autonomy. In the preface to the 1961 edition of the book he added a gendered critique of work and consumption by arguing that “men need to feel adequate: to hold down a job, and then to be related to life through consumership is not enough.” The “burden put on leisure by the disintegration of work,” he added, “is too huge to be coped with: leisure itself cannot rescue work, but fails with it, and can only be meaningful for most men if work is meaningful.”[1]

Throughout the twentieth century workers in the United States and Western Europe have struggled to achieve the balance Riesman spoke about. Corporations and governments in the 1920s introduced sponsored leisure activities to gain worker loyalty or to build national identity. But those efforts often failed to compete with mass amusements where workers had more autonomy and where they could defy the constraints they faced with wage work. By the Depression, men and women in Western Europe and the United States were working a weekly average of forty hours and up until the 1970s the typical workweek in both regions was similar. But a contracting economy and efforts to challenge the gains workers had made in the previous quarter century were also conspicuous. While workers in Europe and the United States experienced unprecedented prosperity in the post-Second World War era, the US government’s economic policies favored private investment over the publicly funded model the Europeans favored. As the economy began to collapse in the 1970s, US workers simply had fewer resources with which to negotiate wage work and to protect their leisure. To be sure, the Europeans faced their own backlash as conservative governments gained ground and pushed to privatize certain government services. But even as the European right to leisure has endured, the struggle to achieve and maintain a balance between work and leisure has grown more complicated as the world has become a global marketplace.

The interwar years

By the interwar years, Americans and Europeans worked a weekly average of forty-eight to fifty hours, and by the Depression the workweek had shrunk to around forty in many Western European countries. France, for example, introduced the forty-hour workweek in 1936 as part of Popular Front reforms.[2] US workers also saw the workweek shrink to forty with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The act established a minimum wage and a forty-hour workweek by requiring employers to pay time and a half above forty hours, paving the way for an end to the traditional half-day on Saturdays and the beginning of a two-day weekend.[3]

Government-sponsored leisure programs were also popular. The rise of Mussolini in fascist Italy and Hitler in Nazi Germany eliminated workers’ rights. But the Germans organized a “Strength through Joy” program that provided workers with cheap vacations, theater and concert tickets, and weekend outings, and by 1939 an estimated four million Italians were participating in government-sponsored sporting clubs, holiday camps, and other cultural events.[4]

The 1920s were also notable for the rise of welfare capitalism, a term to describe corporate benefits programs like wash rooms, savings plans, on-site nurses, and a variety of leisure activities. Companies had been organizing similar programs in the United States and Europe since the nineteenth century, but they became increasingly popular by the 1920s. The Amoskeag Corporation in Manchester, New Hampshire, which employed around fourteen thousand workers and was the world’s largest textile mill, established a textile club in 1922 during a strike at the mill that included a reading room, canteen, billiard and pool tables, and card tables.[5] American companies in the Southwest organized similar programs, including sports teams on both sides of the US–Mexico border. The California Fruit Growers Exchange (also known by the trademark, Sunkist) worked with local citrus growers in the early 1920s to promote a corporate welfare program that featured Americanization classes, worker housing, recreational facilities, and sports clubs.[6]

In some cases, these programs were quite popular, but workers’ use of their leisure to contest the problems they faced at work also reflects the more complicated place of corporate leisure in their lives. In those same agricultural areas of the Southwest where employers began sponsoring sports teams, workers spent their time away from work in pool halls to recoup and repair their bodies from an alienating and physically demanding workspace and to compare wage rates and discuss grievances about their employers. Pool halls were such important spaces that in Corona, California, in 1916, the City Council closed them on Sundays and a year later considered closing them permanently after Mexican agricultural workers engaged in a number of strikes to obtain better wages and working conditions.[7]

Corporate-sponsored programs too were generally short-lived as employers were often suspicious of worker leisure, which provided more opportunities for autonomy and independence. For example, in the early twentieth century employers debunked working women in New York who promenaded throughout the city in the latest style and fashion—brightly colored dresses, oversized hats, and silk stockings.[8] What could appear frivolous to a boss, though, could be a worker’s challenge to otherwise grim workaday lives and limitations. This style would profoundly shape the rise of the New Woman or Modern Girl of the 1920s and 1930s. She sported bobbed hair, lipstick and rouge, a slender and athletic body, and became known among contemporaries for her independent and flirtatious attitude. While women in the United States are routinely linked to the style, it was actually a worldwide phenomenon that was conspicuous throughout the world—France, Germany, Britain, South Africa, India, China, and Japan.[9] The pressure to reconstruct conventional norms was especially prominent in Europe during the interwar years as fears about declining populations swept the region. These fears led several nations to subsidize motherhood and restrict women’s economic and social freedoms.[10] The Modern Girl represented a visible challenge to ideas about women’s proper role and allowed women to frustrate efforts to limit or dictate their leisure opportunities and fun.

Figure 9.1. Poolroom constructed in 1940 near the Shasta Dam in Shasta County, California. Photo: Russell Lee, Library of Congress. Public domain.

Corporate- and government-sponsored leisure programs were also competing with the rise of a mass culture.[11] By the mid-1920s there were more than twenty thousand movie theaters in the United States, and they were thriving in big and small towns alike. By the end of the 1920s, for example, Chicago had enough theater seats available for one-half of the city’s population to attend at least once a day. A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey from the city showed that half of the budget for leisure among working men’s families was spent at the movies, and by the Depression of the 1930s, 100 million movie tickets were sold across the country every week.[12] In his history of America’s consumer society, historian Daniel Horowitz notes that even people who faced severe economic constraints also looked for ways to maintain pre-Depression standards of living and would stretch their dollars to make car payments or to attend a movie.[13]

Figure 9.2. The Rialto Theater in Casper, Wyoming, 2015. Photo: Carol H. Highsmith, Library of Congress. Public domain.

Europeans were facing more difficult economic times than their counterparts in the United States, but mass entertainment also flourished during the interwar years. Historian Martin Pugh notes that besides the pub, dancing and the cinema “formed the basis of mass entertainment between the wars.” There were eight thousand nightclubs in London in 1918 and eleven thousand by 1925.[14] By the end of the 1930s, Britain had five thousand cinemas, two thousand more than had been available in 1914. One estimate of cinema attendance in Great Britain stood at 963 million admissions a year in the early 1930s, which was equal to twenty-two visits a year per head of household. By 1939 annual admissions had risen to 990 million, about double what they were in 1914 and some twenty-five times as many tickets as were sold to football matches. The working class made up a disproportionate share of the moviegoing audience, but during the 1930s a middle-class audience became more prominent as entrepreneurs began to build cinemas that emulated the metropolitan theater.[15]

As these examples suggest, there were limits to the rise of or growth of government- and corporate-sponsored leisure. As the economy worsened in the late 1920s, these programs would struggle to survive as thousands of businesses went bankrupt. The amusements that had grown popular throughout the interwar years had also become critical to day-to-day life, and workers refused to abandon them despite the economic struggles they faced. Indeed, government- and corporate-sponsored leisure programs were less about making the workplace better and more about making workers and citizens more loyal, and neither addressed the problems workers faced on the shop floor or the need to try and find a balance between work and leisure.

The postwar era, 1945–1970s

During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration’s commitment to an emerging belief that economic growth went hand in hand with full time, full employment set the stage for federal policy during the Cold War. War production became perpetual military mobilization on the one hand, and a conversion to mass production of consumer goods on the other. Both, in turn, were accompanied by a renewed emphasis on domesticity, breadwinning, consumption, and national security. In the three decades after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers’ push for a shorter workweek saw virtually no gains,[16] but bread-and-butter unions would strike a bargain with management abandoning the right to shape the production process in exchange for higher wages, greater benefits, and more leisure time.[17] In the United States consumption was attracting more attention than production, and leisure began to overshadow work.

In contrast to the United States, in the aftermath of the war Europeans’ struggles with a decimated infrastructure and an industrial base took precedence over leisure. Nonetheless, the postwar period also ushered in an era of prosperity across Western Europe that saw a culture of consumption take root by the 1960s. The Europeans, more so than the Americans, managed a reformed capitalism. A system of negotiation and consultation between government, employers, and unions promoted unprecedented prosperity and the rise of a social welfare state that provided publicly funded medical care and pensions, education, subsidized public housing, transportation, and vacation time. These services fostered a level of disposable wealth that had never been seen before and a degree of security and comfort for a wide range of working people. The right to leisure had been well established in Europe before the Second World War, but it flourished in the postwar years and became linked to national identity.[18]

In the postwar years, Americans and Europeans saw comparable rates of growth and prosperity. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s real per capita disposable income in the United States increased 84 percent, and real median family income doubled. Unemployment also averaged less than 5 percent during this period, and union membership reached an all-time high of 32.5 percent of the labor force in 1953.[19] On average Western European economies were growing by 4 percent a year during the 1950s, unemployment in Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands was 4 percent or less throughout much of the 1945 to 1960s period, and real wages also saw dramatic increases. Between 1950 and 1980 the English saw real wages increase by 80 percent.[20]

In the United States during these years of prosperity, new leisure opportunities emerged and paradigmatic of the change—and critically important to it—was the automobile. The number of cars on the road increased from 26 million in 1940 to 107 million by 1974—nearly two automobiles for every three people.[21] Automobile manufacturing alone employed more than a million members of the United Auto Workers, and dozens of other industries emerged or dramatically expanded: motels, garages, service stations, highway construction, suburbanization, and the leisure industry. The automobile did facilitate white flight to the suburbs that left inner-city amusements like movie palaces and amusement parks without the revenue needed to stay afloat, and the parks that replaced them (like Disneyland) were out of reach for inner-city residents, further restricting these pastimes to a largely suburban, white, middle-class population. Yet automobiles also ushered in the golden age of certain leisure pursuits, including drive-in theaters and drive-in restaurants. By 1958 more than four thousand drive-in theaters across the nation in big and small towns alike entertained legions of Americans.[22] Drive-ins became the iconic setting for 1950s-themed movies about teenagers, but drive-in theater owners appealed to young and old alike with a variety of concessions, live bands, and playgrounds for the children. Millions of Americans spent a great deal of their leisure time in automobiles and spent much of their working lives manufacturing them or working in one of the dozens of other industries that were dependent on them.[23]

Europeans also enthusiastically participated in a new world of consumption that bore striking similarities to the American experience. In the postwar years, Europeans enjoyed a housing boom, and home appliances that once seemed unaffordable became the norm. Automobiles, too, profoundly shaped the rural and urban landscape. British car ownership rose from 2 million in 1939 to 8 million by 1964 and then to 11.5 million by the end of the 1960s.[24] The number of two-wheeled vehicles was also on the rise. In Italy, the number of motorcycles and scooters rose from 700,000 in 1950 to 4.3 million by 1964, and the growing interest in automobiles, motorcycles, and scooters led to the formation of social clubs, mass rallies, long-distance tours, and races across the region.[25]

Car and motorcycle customizing also became popular after the Second World War and offer an interesting case study on the continued link between motor vehicles, leisure, and work in both the United States and Europe. During the Second World War consumers lost access to new-model automobiles and became accustomed to working on their own cars. As the war came to an end, car racers and customizers became their own subculture. In January 1948, the Southern California Timing Association held its first exhibition that attracted around fifty-five thousand people. By 1950, hot rod magazines had two hundred thousand readers, and drag racing clubs proliferated. California was the state best known for car customizers and racers, but the subculture also took root in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico.[26]

Lowrider culture among Hispanics in East Los Angeles was also taking shape after the Second World War. Los Angeles attracted thousands of Mexican American veterans in search of well-paying jobs and many of them had skills as welders, ironworks, or as painters that were essential to building low or slow cruiser cars. Before long, clubs with names like the Honey Drippers, the Pan Draggers, and the Renegades were congregating at drive-ins or cruising certain well-known Los Angeles hot spots.[27]

Motorcycles also became increasingly popular in the postwar years. After a 1947 motorcycle rally in Hollister, California, degenerated into what the press labelled a riot, working-class men dressed in dungarees and leather jackets began to dominate the public image of riders. In Sweden, the press reported fears of motorcyclists also known as the Skinnknutte (loosely translated as the leather men). The Germans and Austrians referred to them as the Halb-starke (or “half-strong”), the French used the label Blousons Noirs (Black Jackets) and in England the Rockers and Mods attracted the attention of the press after a scuffle broke out between the two groups in the 1950s (although the Mods preferred scooters to motorcycles).[28]

Figure 9.3. A bowling alley in Barnsley, England, located at the Monk Bretton Miners Social Centre, 1965. Photo: National Coal Board. Courtesy the UK National Archives.

In all of these countries motorcyclists began to customize their bikes for style and for racing. In the immediate postwar US motorcyclists “bobbed” or “chopped” their bikes, a term that essentially describes the process of stripping down a stock model to make the bike leaner and easier to maneuver. By the 1950s riders began to build choppers, and by the 1960s the style was widespread. A chopper was the updated version of a bobbed or chopped motorcycle that became identified with the “outlaw” rider and involves a more thorough manipulation of the bike’s frame and design (called raking the frame) to extend the front forks and to lengthen the wheelbase and raise the front end.[29]

Figure 9.4. Motorcyclist Jack Troop competing in a hill-climbing competition in the United States, mid-1950s. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Don Troop.

In Europe, the best-known motorcycles were the café racers the British working class favored, a term that emerged from the practice of racing their bikes from café to café. Cultural critics Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferris note that the Rockers “were devoted to the mechanical improvement of their bikes” and the emphasis was on “speed and the aerodynamic appearance of speed.” The most noteworthy example of British mechanical know-how was the Triton, a café racer that combined a Triumph and a Norton motorcycle.[30]

Car and motorcycle customizers and mechanics turned used vehicles into highly stylized creations that challenged the aesthetics that are typical of mass-produced commodities and influenced car and motorcycle manufactures to adopt some of their styles and ideas. The work of customizing coincided with expanding efforts to standardize and automatize the production process and suggests that customizing and consuming cars or motorcycles reflected workers’ desire to maintain and accentuate skills that were no longer appreciated at work.[31]

The growth of automobiles also facilitated the increasingly common experience of going on vacation. Historian Cindy S. Aron argues that for the first time “between 1935 and 1940 the privilege of vacations with pay was finally extended to a majority of America’s industrial labor force.”[32] The Second World War would challenge the growing popularity of vacations, but with the unprecedented prosperity and mobility of the postwar years, Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds eagerly took to the road for vacation sites and campgrounds. For example, African American vacationers were drawn to places such as Atlantic Beach in South Carolina, one of the few African American owned and governed oceanfront resorts in North America. Black Panther Assata Shakur distinctly recalls the years she spent with her family on another beach in South Carolina called Bop City or Freeman’s Beach where black vacationers from all over North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia gathered for relaxation and leisure.[33]

Vacations were also becoming part of a distinctive European identity. The right to leisure and tourism was already well established in Europe before the Second World War, but in the postwar years, holidays became what historian John Urry describes as “almost a marker of citizenship, a right to pleasure.” After the war, marketing campaigns promoting foreign holidays became common, nations lifted international travel restrictions, and the hotel industry modernized. By the mid-1950s thirty million travellers each year were crossing European borders, and by 1966 the number exceeded one hundred million. Cheap airline and rail service and the availability of automobiles encouraged the mobility but so, too, did government-sponsored vacations. By the 1960s, most employees in Europe were entitled to two weeks of paid vacations, plus holidays while in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and France, employees were entitled to three weeks of paid vacation.[34]

In the United States Americans were just as enthusiastic vacationers, but American culture in general and government policies in particular that celebrated individualism, privatized day-to-day services and leisure, including vacations. Thus, instead of establishing universal plans to underwrite pensions, housing, and education like those in European countries, the US government favored highway construction instead of mass transit, loans for single detached family dwellings instead of funds to renovate inner-city neighborhoods or to build public housing, and private pension plans and limited government loans for veterans instead of publicly supported options.[35] While some workers benefited from these programs, the gains did not equally serve women or African Americans and Latinos/as, and these policies undercut the institutions and environments that promoted a collective sense of public welfare and social belonging. Thus, women were required to pass means tests for benefits such as family assistance (unlike Social Security available to all workers, who were more likely to be male). Similarly, racial minorities were largely excluded from the expansion of home ownership after the Second World War, and their exclusion from the growing middle-class and working-class white suburbs also denied them access to the garden playgrounds, barbecues, and parks that became idealized in the 1950s as “the good life.”[36]

But to enjoy the “good life,” workers in the United States had to be able to afford it. Federal Housing Authority loans helped pay for suburban homes, but workers still remained dependent upon their employers for paid vacations or holidays, which meant individually negotiating time off, working through their unions to negotiate for them, or challenging employers on the shop floor to meet their demands. Autoworkers at the Reo Plant in Michigan after the Second World War, for example, consistently pressured Michigan’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions to push for better recreational facilities and the leisure time to enjoy them. Hunting was often the particular focus and when those demands were not met, companies repeatedly faced high rates of absenteeism or unexplained flu epidemics at the start of the hunting season. Hunting was not only a popular pasttime for autoworkers but also profoundly shaped how they negotiated their time at work and their conditions for employment.[37]

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and government policies that pumped billions of dollars into the economy in support of it, the United States and Western European standard of living reached unprecedented heights. Prosperity in both regions had in fact become linked to the average worker’s ability to consume and to ideas about citizenship. Leisure was not simply critical to understanding the ways in which men and women negotiated their working lives and identities but was beginning to overshadow work.

The post-1970s

Economic expansion would stagnate in the post-1970 era and set the stage for a number of changes to men’s and women’s day-to-day leisure. In the United States through the 1970s economic growth would continue but only at an annual rate of about 2 percent.[38] The decade after 1973 saw unemployment rise above 7 percent and inflation reached 11 percent in 1974, up from 1.3 percent a year in 1960 to 1965.[39] Real wages stagnated for most Americans between the early 1970s to the 1990s and actually dropped by 25 percent for young males.[40] In the 1970s many European nations also experienced inflation and unemployment rates that were often in the double digits. Between 1974 and 1976 the average annual growth rate among Western European nations dropped to zero, which stood in sharp contrast to the 1960s when the average was 4.8 percent. By 1984, a quarter of Western European workers under the age of twenty-five were unemployed.[41]

American and Western European governments’ focus on deregulation and anti-union policies exacerbated the struggle to make ends meet and ultimately refocused workers’ leisure possibilities. Chancellor Helmut Kohl in West Germany, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and President Ronald Reagan in the United States advocated for less state regulation, free markets, and more individual achievement. Thatcher, for example, sold nationalized coal, transport, and utility industries to private ownership, spending on social programs as a share of the GDP dropped, trade union membership declined throughout her tenure as prime minister, and her government reduced tax rates for the wealthiest.[42] In the United States President Reagan focused on significant cuts in taxation, the elimination of hundreds of rules regulating business, and a dramatic reduction in federal social spending. These policies led to regional booms in real estate, finance, retail trade, and high-tech manufacturing, but throughout the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic states American industry witnessed wave after wave of plant closings,[43] and between 1980 and 1983 2.4 million workers disappeared from the union rolls.[44]

To try and maintain profits corporations adopted policies that did little more than reduce wages and benefits for American and European workers and increased the disparity between the rich and the poor. American companies moved production facilities to the Sunbelt South, the stretch of land from Virginia to Florida and then west across Texas to southern California where wage and unionization rates were lower, while Western European companies began looking to central or Eastern Europe. Corporations also moved their operations to Mexico, Taiwan, and Indonesia or simply began to outsource labor to export processing zones across the globe where typically young women worked for low wages for contractors or subcontractors from Korea, Taiwan, or Hong Kong to fill orders for companies based in the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, or Canada. Corporate flight left behind workers with few alternatives, pensions, or transferable skills.[45]

The jobs that remained were increasingly confined to the service sector. The growing impact of service jobs was already noticeable in the twenty-five years after the Second World War when millions of new jobs opened up in education, health care, and government. Not all of these jobs were white collar. Service-sector jobs also include sales assistants, domestic and janitorial workers, cooks, and security staff. These jobs have been traditionally identified with women and racial minorities, and they were often part-time or temporary and paid low wages. In Britain by the mid-1990s about five million workers were employed in manufacturing, construction, and mining, while retail trade and services employed nearly nine million workers.[46] In the United States in 2016 manufacturing makes up the highest percentage of employment in only seven states. In the remaining forty-three states retail trade, accommodation and food service, and health care and social assistance dominate, and only 9 percent of total US employment was in manufacturing.[47]

The adverse effects of a changing economy led critics to blame leisure. As the battle over the power of unions and production exploded in Britain, the Thatcher government used the stereotype of the “lazy” British worker to promote antiunionism.[48] In the United States where Reagan-era neoconservatives deployed the same argument, critics turned the affluence of the postwar years (while ignoring how those gains left working-class minorities behind) against the new generation of white industrial workers. Social scientists and corporate managers argued that the affluence had spoiled the working poor. This generation of industrial workers, they averred, were unfamiliar with scarcity, and they lacked the character of their fathers who had survived the Depression. Workers’ problems, according to these critics, were of their own making: they were to blame for rising rates of absenteeism, shoddy workmanship, and an unwillingness to assume their roles as breadwinner. Probusiness conservatives argued that parental overindulgence and a postwar affluence had undermined a work ethic, and they concluded that the productivity lag was a consequence of leisure gone awry as laziness: a generation of men who were indifferent to work and preferred to spend their time at leisure (i.e. not working).[49]

Even children’s leisure attracted increasing scrutiny against the backdrop of economic stagnation. Fears about the country’s international competitiveness, budget deficits, and street crime led Americans to shift their focus away from the “protected” child of previous decades to the “prepared” childhood of the post-1970 era. Historian Steven Mintz notes that parents were concerned that their children “lagged far behind their foreign counterparts in their knowledge of science, mathematics and technology and lacked the discipline and drive necessary to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.” To that end, the growth of “educationally oriented preschools” took off during the period as parents sought to enhance their children’s cognitive, motor, language, and social skills. Parents also pushed to fill up their children’s free time after school with additional lessons, enrichment activities, and organized sports, leading critics to complain about “hyper parenting” or parents who placed too much stress on their children to achieve while eliminating opportunities for free play. Surveys of children’s unstructured play and other outdoor activities for children three to eleven years old actually declined by close to 40 percent between the early 1980s and late 1990s.[50]

The other major theme surrounding the economic polarization of the era focused on the privatization of leisure. Simply put, growing numbers of men and women who were struggling to make ends meet were spending more of their leisure time at home when compared to their counterparts from previous generations. In Britain by the 1980s the main growth areas in leisure spending was on “sound and vision reproducing equipment, telecommunications and computer technology,” and by the 2000s, mass media and related communication technologies consumed more time than other forms of leisure. By this time, the typical British man or woman spent an average of twenty-six hours each week watching television, nineteen hours each week listening to the radio, and four out of ten households had a home computer. Other home-based leisure activities included do-it-yourself home projects and repairs, decorating, car maintenance, and gardening, which were the most popular hobbies in Great Britain by the 1990s when two-thirds of Britain’s dwellings were owner-occupied.[51]

Most forms of out-of-home recreation also saw a decline if they could be replicated or closely substituted by in-home entertainment. While cinema admissions doubled in the thirty years since the early 1980s, sociologist Kenneth Roberts describes the audiences for the theater and spectator sporting events as “in long-term and continuing decline.” The British, too, consumed more alcohol per capita in the 1980s than any previous decade in the twentieth century but more of that alcohol was consumed at home—less at public houses. As a consequence, the success of sports had become increasingly dependent on primetime television coverage, and drink, sports and film producers have put more resources into home-based markets and into made-for-television movies and video distribution.[52]

Figure 9.5. An abandoned drive-in theatre in Chester, West Virginia. Photo: Carol H. Highsmith. Library of Congress. Public domain.

By the end of the century, out-of-home recreation showed signs of growth in participant sports and tourism. Concerns about health and fitness in the 1970s led to a decline in smoking, increased popularity of health foods and diets, and a rise in jogging and mass participation in marathons. More of the British also went on vacations or took day trips to coastal and countryside destinations, and the growing interest in travel led to the rise of theme parks. A quarter of the population now take two or more holidays a year and a third at least one.[53]

Yet economic polarization has also shaped the trend toward out-of-home recreation. While growing numbers of men and women participated in regular exercise, a third of men and half of women engaged in no regular exercise, and health concerns were most evident among the middle and upper classes.[54] By the mid-twentieth century, four out of five British men fifteen years of age or older smoked.[55] As health concerns mounted, the numbers of smokers would decrease and by 2014 just under one in five adults smoked. But smoking rates remain significantly higher among poorer people. Only 13 percent of adults in managerial and professional occupations smoked in 2014 compared with 30 percent of adults in routine and manual occupations.[56] Holiday excursions were no different. By the postwar years, holiday travel and vacations had emerged as a sign of British identity but by the early twenty-first century about four-tenths of the population have no holiday trips at all, and that proportion has not changed since the mid-1970s when the standard of living began to decline across Western Europe.[57]

“Connoisseur leisure” has also grown in popularity. Connoisseur leisure consists of small groups of enthusiasts with finely tuned skills and exceptional knowledge about any number of activities—spectator sports, the arts, the countryside, wines, and home improvement. These enthusiasts demand a different standard of service and commit considerable cash, time, and energy to their pastimes. The economic polarization of the era facilitated the growth of these wealthier subcultures of leisure enthusiasts who stood in sharp contrast to the overwhelming majority of the working and middle classes whose leisure was increasingly homebound or consisted of mass-marketed goods and packaged experiences.[58]

The unequal distribution of wealth in Western Europe also exacerbated the alienation of poor and working-class youth, whose leisure opportunities dissipated with the economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. With unemployment for those under twenty-five at 25 percent many of them had no jobs and no disposable wealth. Yet unlike their elders, they were not homebound, generally spending their leisure time hanging out with friends or wandering the streets. The growing numbers of unemployed in fact gave rise to fears about hooliganism, a particularly conspicuous problem linked to football matches across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. They were the children of parents who came of age during the prosperity of the immediate postwar years but lacked the resources needed to take part in the culture of consumption that had taken root in British culture. As their presence became more conspicuous, they became linked to crime and lawlessness.[59]

The privatization of out-of-home leisure distinguished US recreation during this same period. As early as 1982, one survey by Scripps-Howard found that eight out of the ten most popular American leisure activities were home-based. In his study of community engagement sociologist Robert Putnam explores the reasons for the withdrawal from civic involvement and the problems he points to are the same ones shaping Western Europe. Putnam notes, “people with lower incomes and those who feel financially strapped are much less engaged in all forms of social and community life, than those who are better off.” Financial anxiety, he adds, means “less time spent with friends, less card playing, less home entertaining, less frequent attendance at church, less volunteering and less interest in politics.” The withdrawal from these activities has affected women who work full time the most, and Putnam highlights the future potential impact of the electronic mass media and especially the internet on civic engagement. Like Western Europe, this problem, according to Putnam, began with the growing popularity of the television, which absorbed almost 40 percent of the average American’s free time in 1995, “an increase of roughly one-third since 1965.” By 2000, the average American spends four hours a day watching television and at least half of all of them usually watch alone. A major effect of television’s arrival, he concludes, “was the reduction in participation in social, recreational and community activities among people of all ages.”[60]

The economic polarization that became most conspicuous by the 1980s also translated into a public discourse that celebrated both wealth and leisure. The most prominent symbol was the yuppie, a term for those young upwardly mobile professionals in the United States who also had counterparts in Western Europe (Sloane Rangers in Great Britain and the bon chic bon genre in France).[61] All three attracted increasing attention in the 1980s, an era in which professional-managerial “workers” in finance, trade, the legal profession, and banking lauded the ostentatious display of wealth.[62] The wealthiest have long been associated with conspicuous consumption, but ostentatious displays of wealth and leisure defined the modern era and shaped popular culture. American television dramas such as Dynasty and Dallas, which also aired throughout Eastern and Western Europe, further promoted wealth and gave ordinary working Americans and Europeans a glimpse of the luxury homes and yachts that dominated discussions about leisure and the high life in the 1980s.[63] While American and European workers struggled to maintain the prosperity that they had helped produce in the postwar era, media barraged them with images of a “good life” denied to them, according to neoliberal policymakers, by their simply being too lazy.

To be sure, differences remained between Western Europe and the United States. What gains working- and middle-class Americans saw in their family incomes during the post-1970 era came from growing numbers of family members entering the labor market. In the quarter century after 1970 women’s labor force participation in the United States increased from about 40 percent to 60 percent and virtually all the income gains among white two-parent families in the years after 1967 can be accounted for by the wages of wives and daughters.[64] According to historian Juliet Schor, the average employed person in 1989 was working 163 hours more a year than what that person was working in 1969, an extra two and a half weeks for men and seven additional weeks for women.[65]

In Western Europe by the 1960s, most employees were entitled to two weeks’ paid vacation plus holidays, and in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and France workers were entitled to three weeks’ paid vacation. In fact, employees have the most time off in countries where a collective bargaining agreement covers the largest number of them. While collective bargaining agreements only covered about 18 percent of American workers in 2004, collective bargaining agreements covered about 90 percent or more of workers in Sweden, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Finland. By this year, Germany and Italy had the highest number of paid holidays and vacation days (thirty-nine days), and Europeans worked 20 percent less than their American counterparts or forty weeks each year compared to forty-six weeks a year for the average American working full time.[66]

The average number of hours worked in the United States was comparable to the average in Europe until the 1970s. By this time and as the economy began to contract, union strength in Europe was reaching a peak in many countries and reducing the workweek become a strategy that Europeans adopted to keep everyone employed.[67] More recently, the European Union’s Working Time Directive of 1998 set a limit of forty-eight hours per week, and in 2000 France adopted a thirty-five-hour work. The average across Europe by this time was thirty-seven to thirty-nine hours a week[68] while full-time workers in the United States worked about forty-seven hours each week.[69]

With paid vacations but limited means, Europeans consistently struggle to strike a balance between work and leisure. While the EU set a limit of forty-eight hours per week in 1998, workers may opt out of the requirement if they wish to and about a fifth of Britain’s workforce has. In 2003, 11 percent of the British workforce was working more than forty-eight hours a week and 13.1 percent by 2007. More than a third of men with children in their households worked more than fifty hours per week, and two-thirds of the women who hold managerial and professional positions work more than forty-eight hours each week. The country also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of men and women working overtime between 1988 and 1998, and 22 percent of men who are fully employed work more than forty-eight hours each week. Less than half of all workers also fail to take their full holidays, and in 2012 more than a third of senior civil servants took no annual leave.[70]

The burden has been particularly hard on women. Feminists in the 1970s began using the phrase “work–life balance” to characterize their fight for policies that would make it easier for mothers to engage in paid work. What became clear from the ensuing discussion is that the amount of paid work for women has increased since the mid-1970s, and women perform substantially more unpaid work than men despite the decades-old push for more balanced gender roles. European women’s leisure time since the 1970s has decreased by about forty minutes each day.[71]

In addition, current corporate trends in the twenty-first century suggest that even the best attempts to find an effective balance between work and leisure have had limited results. Google prides itself on its overarching philosophy: to “create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world” and thus foster the kind of creativity needed to remain successful. Google offers its employees 100 percent health-care coverage and onsite childcare facilities, paid maternity leave for both parents, numerous cafés and cafeterias that provide free food, and various play and conversation areas that allow employees to destress or meditate, and Google does not require employees to work in the office. The company celebrates work as a part of a community in which workers are surrounded by friends and other coworkers who are there to help and thus relieve any stress.[72]

Like Google, the high-tech industry generally prides itself on its worker-friendly environment, yet it remains unclear how long this trend will last or if it is likely to spread to other companies. At Yahoo the company’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, ended its policy of allowing employees to work at home in 2015 because it was adversely affecting collaboration and innovation.[73] Critics and employees have complained that the culture of the high-tech industry only values younger employees, who typically do not have children and have fewer responsibilities. In a 2007 interview Facebook’s cofounder Mark Zuckerberg summed up this point when he said: “Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.” Indeed, critics note that the high-profile examples of the company’s executives balancing family and work tell us little about average workers because these privileges are not always available to them. Marissa Mayer, for example, had a nursery built next to her office after she returned to work two weeks after having her baby. And even some of the benefits that are available to your typical worker reinforce the idea that workers need to be committed to the workplace. Free food in the cafeterias and on-site laundry facilities make things easier in a pinch, but they also discourage employees from leaving work.[74]

High-tech corporate efforts to strike a balance between work and leisure to promote happiness and productivity also bear remarkable similarity to the welfare capitalism of the 1920s. Play areas, conversation spaces, and the other leisure facilities are merely momentary distractions workers can make use of to help them cope with stress and then quickly resume the work they have been paid to perform. While workers appear empowered and have a range of options to choose from, the corporation makes all the decisions about what constitutes leisure. The other amenities they offer are provided to make it easier to stay at work longer, but ironically these “amenities” limit the amount of time for leisure and autonomy. Leisure appears, thus, as an afterthought, sandwiched between moments of restlessness in the workplace. These programs give little thought to structured leisure, which is inconspicuous at best.


While workers have often achieved a rich and fulfilling life of leisure, there has been no constant progress toward achieving the balance between work and leisure that Riesman imagined in his mid-century study of American character. Workers’ successes and failures have often been the consequence of unstable or expanding economies and government- or corporate-sponsored leisure programs that generally failed to recognize that a fulfilling leisure life was also dependent upon a rewarding work experience.

Multinational corporations and contemporary business practices have only added to the problems workers face. The constant push to maximize profits has come at the expense of workers’ rights and effectively compromised their time for leisure. Indeed, outsourcing to the lowest bidder and temporary employment undercuts the social relations necessary for meaningful work and the networks critical to organizing and sustaining leisure. Ironically, nowhere are these changes more obvious than within the tourism and leisure industry. Worldwide tourism alone accounts for 8 percent of all exports, or, in terms of employment, one out of every twelve jobs. Its growth rate has in fact shown a high and almost constant upward trend since 1950.[75] The leisure industry has shown similar gains. In Great Britain, it provides 9 percent of UK employment, which is roughly 2.6 million jobs, or more workers than manufacturing, transport, construction, or jobs in the financial services sector, and its revenue is growing by over 7 percent a year. Most leisure employment, like other service work, is also temporary, low-wage, and insecure, hence 21 percent of the workforce is made up of sixteen to twenty-five year olds, and women constitute a majority of workers.[76]

National boundaries also increasingly make less sense in a global world. While workers in some Western European countries have secured more vacation time and a shorter workweek, they still face enormous pressure to maintain a certain level of productivity and hence legitimize their commitment to the corporation. The high-tech industry has attracted the most attention for those efforts, and the list of amenities they offer employees is impressive. Yet these efforts have proceeded without keeping in mind the broader relationship between work and leisure, and their efforts remain focused on finding ways to make workers more productive and loyal—like welfare capitalism during the interwar years. These corporations only affect a small percentage of the American or European labor force, and the demands of the job have attracted young people with few responsibilities and no children—a conspicuous cohort but one that does not reflect the typical worker. Leisure, as David Riesman reminds us, cannot rescue the disintegration of work, and leisure can only be meaningful if work is.

[1] David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961), Ivi–Ivii.

[2] Dan Stone, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 432–3.

[3] Roy Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society, Volume Two Since 1877 (New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2000), 429.

[4] Brian Levack et al., The West: Encounters & Transformations (New York, NY: Pearson, 2004), 842, 845.

[5] Tamara Hareven, Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City (Lebanon: UNPE, 1995), 21–2.

[6] Jose M. Alamillo, Making Lemonade out of Lemons: Mexican American Labor and Leisure in a California Town, 1880–1960 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 101–2.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986), 56–87.

[9] Kathy Peiss, “Girls Lean Back Everywhere,” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization , eds. Alys Eve Weinbaum et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 347–53 .

[10] Levack et al., The West, 838–9.

[11] Ibid., 146.

[12] Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America, 336; Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 120.

[13] Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875–1940 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 153–61.

[14] Martin Pugh, “ We Danced All Night”: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 218.

[15] Stuart Hanson, From Silent Screen to Multi-Screen: A History of Cinema Exhibition in Britain since 1896 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 26–7, 66.

[16] Philip S. Foner and David R. Roediger, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1989), 258.

[17] George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 256–62.

[18] Stone, The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History, 423–6.

[19] Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (New York, NY: Verso, 1988), 99. Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1987), 48–9.

[20] Levack, The West, 948–9.

[21] Randy D. McBee, Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 72 ; Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1987), 247.

[22] Ibid., 255.

[23] Elizabeth McKeon, Cinema Under the Stars: America’s Love Affair with the Drive-In Movie Theater (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Publishing, 1998), 4.

[24] Francesca Carnevali and Julie Marie Strange, eds., Twentieth Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007), 113.

[25] Stone, The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History, 426–7.

[26] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 266–7.

[27] Charles M. Tatum, Lowriders in Chicano Culture: From Low, to Slow, to Show (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 2011), 7–10.

[28] McBee, Born to Be Wild, 19–33; Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferriss, Motorcycle (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 78–80.

[29] McBee, Born to Be Wild, 35–7, 103–4.

[30] Alford and Ferriss, Motorcycle, 81–2.

[31] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 266–7.

[32] Cindy S. Aron, Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2001), 238.

[33] Assata Shakur, An Autobiography (New York, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001), 22–5.

[34] Ibid., 433, 437.

[35] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 256.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Lisa M. Fine, “Rights of Men, Rights of Passage: Hunting and Masculinity at Reo Motors of Lansing, Michigan, 1945–1975,” Journal of Social History 33, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 805–23 .

[38] Moody, An Injury to All, 95.

[39] Ibid., 94–6.

[40] Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America?, 684.

[41] Levack et al., The West, 966–7.

[42] Tejvan Pettinger, “Economic Impact of Margaret Thatcher,” November 2010, 2017. http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/274/uk-economy/economic-impact-of-margaret-thatcher/ (accessed February 22, 2018) ; “Economic Policies of Thatcher,” March 23, 2015. https://www.ukessays.com/essays/politics/economic-policies-of-thatcher.php (accessed May 21, 2015).

[43] William C. Berman, America’s Right Turn: From Nixon to Clinton (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 85–119.

[44] Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below (New York, NY: Verso, 2007), 100–1.

[45] Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America, 688–90; Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York, NY: Picador, 1999), 204–6.

[46] Klein, No Logo, 235.

[47] “Largest Industries by State,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 28, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2014/ted_20140728.htme (accessed May 6, 2016) ; Robert E. Scott, Economic Policy Institute, “The Manufacturing Footprint and the Importance of U.S. Manufacturing Jobs,” January 22, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/the-manufacturing-footprint-and-the-importance-of-u-s-manufacturing-jobs/ (accessed May 7, 2016).

[48] Alan Booth, The British Economy in the Twentieth Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 148.

[49] Natasha Zaretsky, No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968–1980 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2007), 111–14.

[50] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 340–1, 47.

[51] C. Critcher, Peter Bramham, and Alan Tomlinson, eds., Sociology of Leisure: A Reader (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 1994), 11–15.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] BBC News, “The Way the British Smoke,” June 29, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4709394.stm (accessed June 21, 2016).

[55] Matthew Hilton, Smoking in British Popular Culture, 1800–2000 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 2.

[56] “ASH: Facts at a Glance.” http://www.ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_93.pdf (accessed June 21, 2016).

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 193, 200, 222–37.

[61] Russell W. Belk, “Yuppies as Arbiters of the Emerging Consumption Style,” Advances in Consumer Research 13 (1986): 514–59. http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/6543/volumes/v13/NA-13 (accessed May 21, 2016).

[62] McBee, Born to Be Wild, 188–9.

[63] Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America?, 712–73; Jan Wieten, Graham Murdock, and Peter Dahlgren, eds., Television Across Europe: A Comparative Introduction (New York, NY: Sage Publications, 2012), 91–2 ; Aniko Imre, TV Socialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 176.

[64] Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America?, 714.

[65] Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Repr., New York, NY: Basic Books, 1993), 29–30.

[66] Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, “Work and Leisure in the United States and Europe: Why So Different,” Harvard Institute of Economic Research, Discussion Paper Number 2068, April 2005, 16, 61. http://post.economics.harvard.edu/hier/2005papers/2005list.html (accessed January 24, 2016).

[67] Moody, U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, 100; Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote, “Work and Leisure in the United States and Europe,” 46.

[68] Stone, The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History, 432–3.

[69] Lydia Saad, “The Forty Hour Work Week Is Actually Longer—By Seven Hours,” Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/175286/hour-workweek-actually-longer-seven-hours.aspx (accessed May 23, 2016).

[70] Hugh Cunningham, Time, Work and Leisure: Life Changes in England since 1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 185–9.

[71] Ibid., 189–95.

[72] James B. Stewart, “Looking for a Lesson in Google’s Perks,” New York times, March 15, 2003.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/business/at-google-a-place-to-work-and-play.html (accessed January 24, 2016).

[73] Christopher Tkaczyk, “Marissa Mayer Breaks Her Silence on Yahoo’s Telecommuting Policy,” Fortune, April 19, 2013. http://fortune.com/2013/04/19/marissa-mayer-breaks-her-silence-on-yahoos-telecommuting-policy/ (accessed January 24, 2016).

[74] Claire Cain Miller, “Silicon Valley: Perks for Some Workers, Struggles for Parents,” New York Times.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/upshot/silicon-valley-perks-for-some-workers-struggles-for-parents.html (accessed January 24, 2016).

[75] Klaus Weiemair and Christine Mathies, The Tourism and Leisure Industry: Shaping the Future (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 93.

[76] “UK Leisure Industry Worth Over £200 Billion: Report,” Leisure Tourism. http://www.cabi.org/leisuretourism/news/22327 (accessed May 27, 2016).