How work is stealing leisure from us

I’ve never come across the concept of serious leisure before, but a bit of Internet ratholing brought me to the Serious Leisure Concept, which takes a look at how people spend their spare time, should they be lucky enough to have such a thing in their lives. The site is heavy on sociological speak, but they break down leisure time occupations into

Casual Leisure

the sort of instant gratification, hedonistic and gormless thing that gives leisure a bad name – watching reality TV etc. It’s a bit wider than that

[Casual Leisure] is fundamentally hedonic […] Among its types are: play (including dabbling), relaxation (e.g., sitting, napping, strolling), passive entertainment (e.g., TV, books, recorded music), active entertainment (e.g., games of chance, party games), sociable conversation, and sensory stimulation (e.g., sex, eating, drinking). Casual volunteering is also a type of casual leisure as is “pleasurable aerobic activity,” or casual leisure requiring effort sufficient to cause marked increase in respiration and heart rate (Stebbins, 2004a). Casual leisure is considerably less substantial, and offers no career of the sort just described for serious leisure. In broad, colloquial language casual leisure, hedonic as it is, could serve as the scientific term for doing what comes naturally. Yet, despite the seemingly trivial nature of most casual leisure, I argue elsewhere that it is nonetheless important in personal and social life. (my emphasis)

Well, yeah. You need the yin to balance the yang in life, and going without shooting the breeze and eating is taking austerity too far.

Southwold from the coffee shop with a distant view of Sizewell. Casual leisure happening.

I think we all get this side of things. The other two categories were interesting additions to the taxonomy:

Serious Leisure

is the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity that is highly substantial, interesting, and fulfilling and where, in the typical case, participants find a career in acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge, and experience

They then break down amateur, hobbyist and volunteer down further, but the essence of this type of thing is that it isn’t an immediate and known win like getting a coffee, you must put something of yourself into it to get something out of it. I found this sort of thing more rewarding after retiring, for the simple reason that you have more time to hone the art. I screwed up a little in being shorter of money in the first few years of retiring than I am now – don’t pay off your mortgage early if you want to flatten your income profile 😉 But I would go as far as to say getting into serious leisure will improve your experience of retirement no end. I’m not comfortable with their use of the term career, but perhaps that’s because I have BTDT, unlike Jim I have absolutely no desire to climb another greasy pole. Like him, I did not leave the rat-race as an elective  move towards the positive goal of FI, although perhaps I had the advantage of having a three-year run-out period.  That nobbled any fond nostalgia for the hell on earth that the modern management practices have turned the professional workplace into for my INTJ type. Either way, I hope they don’t mean career in a work sense, but it is of course true that there is an arc of progression from noob to wizard-guru as you hone the art and craft of your serious leisure pursuit.

I think I want to do more of this. And perhaps less idle surfing, though I do love coming across new ideas and poking a curious ermine snout into the vagaries of this world. I recently got back into video editing and shooting, partly for a short job with some travel coming up, and I was amazed at the improved performance and the way editing and compositing, even 3D compositing is done routinely. I whiled away most of today learning what has happened in this field since I used Premiere around 2007. Is that serious leisure or idle mucking about? Dunno.

Project-based leisure

is a short-term, moderately complicated, either one-shot or occasional, though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time. Such leisure involves considerable planning, effort, and sometimes skill or knowledge, but for all that is not of the serious variety nor intended to develop into such. Nor is it casual leisure. The adjective “occasional” describes widely spaced undertakings for such regular occasions as arts festivals, sports events, religious holidays, individual birthdays, or national holidays while “creative” stresses that the undertaking results in something new or different, showing imagination, skill, or knowledge. Although most projects would appear to be continuously pursued until completed, it is conceivable that some might be interrupted for several weeks, months, even years

I was unable to work out if I do any of this. I do pursue some projects over time, but I can’t see how “continuously pursued until completed fits in”.  That starts to get to sound suspiciously like work 😉 One needs a good few leisure projects, and cut between them. That sort of dissipation wouldn’t be tolerated at work!

There are some real-life examples on this page – this one was from participant Meghan

how one person sees their leisure activity in this taxonomy

I was surprised that so many listed travel in their project-based leisure, I’d have put it in casual. But they did the course so they know better, or maybe their travel isn’t like mine. We also have serious sample bias here because all the respondents are undergraduates, they have yet to join the treadmill of the rat-race and they probably don’t have children.

I got on to the serious leisure site after reading about the demise of the weekend, which is much more the typical narrative that you hear, basically it’s ‘Leisure – what’s that? We work all the hours given us and on the weekend we drive the kids here there and everywhere in between doing the laundry etc etc”. I recognise two of the themes from her piece. The first theme was the much greater freedom I had as a child that seems to be the case for children now, and also the opportunities to fill my own time without structured events. Having children was something people did and fitted into their lives when Katrina Onstad and I were children[ref]I would hazard a guess she was a child less long ago than I, perhaps Canadian kids kept their freedom to roam longer than Brits[/ref], it seems to be much more all-encompassing now.

The other theme was the way people don’t seem to have hobbies any more.

Hobbies are declining, but a hobby is exactly the kind of activity that adds value to the weekend. Stamp collectors and basement inventors may not be cool, but they know the benefits of becoming fully immersed in an activity and losing track of time – that rejuvenating “flow” state

The students were anomalous in that they did have hobbies. When I was growing up in what by modern standards would be a poor area, many of the adult working neighbours had hobbies, they were often creative but low-cost. Many of the guys actually made furniture[ref]Look at this Popular Mechanics from the 1970s for how common making furniture this was – I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of making something accurately enough out of wood to be fit for being in the house[/ref] using hand tools, others made models, and some of the women made clothes[ref]this was the 1960s and 1970s, remember[/ref], presumably both clothes and furniture were much dearer in real terms than they are now. I’d say there’s more consumption and casual leisure now compared to the other types that there used to be.

We’ve imbued work with the job of giving us meaning, and it seems to rob us of our leisure time in so many ways

I recognised another pathology mentioned in Katrina Onstad’s weekend article –

A friend used to make beautiful earrings occasionally. Almost ritualistically, she would buy the beads, and carefully craft the small, coloured jewels in a quiet workspace. Then came Etsy. Now she makes beautiful earrings and sells them, ships them and manages this business along with a full-time job and a family. What was leisure became labour. The side hustle is a weekend thief, but in a time of stagnant incomes, many must choose income over time.

I’ve seen that too. I made some ultrasonic microphones because I wanted to differentiate bat sounds and ended up selling some of these because people wanted to do the same. It was okay, but I was working at the time, so it was a weekend time thief. More recently I had been doing the accounts for a small operation and recently finished that – the time commitment was low, but the relief on finishing up is worth far more than the income. It’s unpleasant enough doing my own tax return, life is too short to see more of the taxman’s tiresome demands on behalf of others.

Somewhere in the back of my mind there must be an old tape still playing out from childhood or early adulthood that income = security, and worse than that, only income from selling my time = security. Perhaps when I finally draw my works pension in a couple of years I will chill from that. Intellectually I can see that I will run out my SIPP in a couple of years, this year it paid me with whisker of the HRT threshold, but I don’t really regard that sort of saved money as an income. There is learning to be had here. I’m not averse to doing the odd hit-and-run job, the microphones were that sort of thing, but I need to avoid regular commitments – the sort of thing Katrina’s Etsy friend ended up with. There is a lot of recommendation to turn a hobby into your job, and yet some good reasons not to.

Much of the point of hobbies and leisure interests is that this isn’t work. The fun with the microphone was developing it and looking for bats with it and hearing the differences, it was solving the problems. After making one or two, the novelty palls, and I’m not good at repetitive things, it’s the fun of the chase of design I liked more. I guess the lady with the earrings may have the same thing – making a new one is the buzz, mailing them out and dealing with returns, not so much perhaps.

There’s a more subtle problem. The business world tends to kill creativity in its search for continuous improvement and optimisation, it strips out the places to play. Although it isn’t creativity in the artistic sense, the design part of problem-solving is a form of creativity, if it isn’t up against the clock IMO. As a young research engineer/scientist I covered many more areas than I did as time went on. Part of that was The Firm shifted quite heavily away from research to development and then into IT, specialising and compartmentalising the workforce as it did so. But I think there is a wider trend towards specialisation – the mantra of concentrate on your core competencies and outsource everything else. In the more vertically integrated scientific and technical companies I worked in 30 years ago I got to learn electronics, I got trained to use a lathe, milling and shaping machines and oxyacetylene welding not because this was what I was going to be doing but because they didn’t want their researchers to run the workshop staff ragged with requirements that couldn’t be made. Companies now would probably outsource all that sort of stuff unless their primary function was mechanical engineering.

That may be more efficient, but it’s much less interesting. Pursuing a hobby doesn’t demand hyper-efficiency, because it is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. There’s reward to be had in the tides of a hobby, in the ebb and flow of the creative process. These meanderings may not be efficient, but they are part of the fun.

15 thoughts on “How work is stealing leisure from us”

  1. 9 months into FIRE and I’m with you on the not doing any work schtick. I’m tutoring once a week but, like you, I resent the intrusion. T’lad should be finishing soon so I’m pleased.

    I did work quite hard in the garden this pm but that was my thing, planting out climbing beans using hazel poles which I’d coppiced to make wigwams. That was fine. That was my choice.

    As you mention Jim over at at SHMD struggled on the FIRE front which was a bit of a mystery to me. I always find things to be interested in – curiosity really. My latest project is visiting the 16 public libraries in Stockport to see what they are like. Pointless but lovely to rummage around in a different set of books every week.

    I remember being trained to machine at Aerospace as a student apprentice. Really enjoyed it. It was useful when doing my Material Science Doctorate. The University Dept had a policy of making the students make their own kit. “You are looking at your technician” was printed under the mirror in the Gents. Never got to weld though.

    FIRE gives you choice, I think. It doesn’t make you happier per se but enables you to be less stressed, to have the time and leisure to be content. That will do.



    1. > I resent the intrusion

      That sort of nails it for me, it’s the commitment. There’s nothing wrong in going for it all in, but then I want out.Gardening seems to be aclassic sort of flow activity for many. I don’t personally get the draw, but I’ve seen it often enough!

      I never became a competent welder, it all looked like bird crap. But I did gain an appreciation for the difficulty of the job!


  2. Modern life with it’s focus on relentless, meaningless consumption conditions people to expect instant gratification. This often translates into a loss of patience & curiousity ….& I think contributes insidiously to a lack of interest in hobbies. Sewing isn’t fun for me, but I learned the absolute minimum to avoid throwing away clothes for the lack of a strategic button – a lot of the young though wouldn’t give that a second thought. Ditto basic cooking vs the one-track mission to obesity via a plethora of junk food; I do enjoy cooking, but can see that if you were raised in a takeaway family, that lack of patience is likely to ensure you’d never even see it as a hobby.

    This is not trivial IMO because having the curiousity & patience to try things out enriches your life by providing opportunities to find out what you’re good at, as well as making you resilient …..& yes, therefore more independent.

    As for modern work practice stripping out any pleasure, I think it’s even worse than that, it can remove meaning too, demoralising & making cynics of those forced to engage. Example: a guy from the water company came to unblock my drain, he was here for half an hour in total solving the problem & the procedure explains why productivity in the UK is so poor. What needed doing was just lifting a couple of manhole covers to locate the blockage, then push a rod down the pipe to break it up, which actually took seconds – seriously, I’ve had longer sneezes. Yet to cover his arse, he had to spend the other 29 minutes, however many seconds, putting up protective barriers around the holes, (there was nobody around except him the entire time) taking photos to prove it, then immediately removing them to get access to do the actual job. That was topped off by the bureaucratic piece-de-resistance: sitting in the van afterwards on a laptop filling in a form/report about the whole experience. You have to see this to believe it.


    1. I do wonder when we will make the move to houses without kitchens. It would save space too!

      I’ve also seen how tablet computers slow things down for people like your drain man, I watched a waiter struggle with an Ipad where the pencil and pad worked so well for so long. The meter reader and the postman also seem to have lost a little bit of time with each transaction using technology rather than paper


  3. Your ultrasonic thing sounds like an excellent example of project based leisure to me?

    I’ve been designing and building a magnetometer to measure small variation in the earths magnetic field due to the solar wind and log the data to a website. Once it’s done, I probably won’t do another. I’d say that debug is more fun than the design, but maybe that’s just me.

    Similarly, I’d like to make a video of me playing all of the various musical instruments I have. I.e pick a tune, play it on one instrument and record it, then play along to the first recording with a different instrument in front of a green screen and mix into the first recording, repeat multiple times.

    Both of those things have been done before, neither has any economic value, or really provides any use or pleasure to anyone except me.


    1. That microphone was a much easier with than your magnetometer, it didn’t really count as a project 😉 I’ve tried and failed a couple of times to build a proton precession magnetometer because of the challenge of winding the wire!

      Citizen science does lend itself well to project-based leisure. Although getting it on the web has its frustrations – my geiger counter was worked fine, and using rrdtool to display the graph it locally is fine. Keeping a cloud IoT display up for more than a day isn’t something I have solved reliably.


      1. The mbed board I used has plenty of example software for doing the cloud IoT stuff (and the chip has a built-in “3d compass” which is in fact a reasonable magnetometer, very useful to check my own sensor isn’t producing nonsense data.) My employer gave all employees a board to do what they wanted with, I’ve been able to blag a couple of unwanted ones from the HR & marketing people 🙂

        A proton precession magnetometer would be rather more sophisticated – would let you look for lumps of metal – the kind of thing that I am trying to filter out in software (people driving cars nearby!)

        As ever, an excellent and thought-provoking post, thank you.


  4. Interesting way of putting it, serious/casual/project-based etc.

    I think I’m mostly a serious leisure person as I’ve always enjoyed doing difficult things where the end result takes several years of regular hard graft, such as heavy weight training, playing the electric guitar and doing a degree in Maths with the OU.

    I guess it’s horses for courses, with most of the people I know leaning (heavily) towards casual and project-based leisure with little longer-term commitment. Except my next door neighbour who spends about two hours each day manicuring the lawn with scissors.


    1. It’s interesting, the difference between people’s leisure approaches, the serious leisure approach seems to be increasingly a casualty of shorter attention spans. I guess gardening does have the advantage from a flow point of view in that there’s always something that can be done to improve it, it doesn’t stay still!


  5. In my case Serious Leisure has led me to be a helpdesk and IT repair guy for a bunch of senior illiterates in my town. I guess it could end up being a career but most of them cannot afford to pay me.
    As far as a Project goes how about learning to install Arch Linux? It’s incredibly geeky and frustrating – I had to learn about Virtual Computing so I could practice how to install Arch. I could just bin the Virtual Machine and start over if I screwed it up.
    Installing a printer in Windows or Ubuntu takes a couple of clicks. In Arch you need to install a bunch of packages, make sure they work together, configure and enable daemons – and that is just to make sure your computer can see the printer on the network.
    Once you have Arch installed – as I do on an older netbook – you are done. After that it is a question of updates and maintenance. Never install again.
    Arch is such a PITA I would never install, maintain or recommend it to a new user. So demand for it is zero in my circle of friends and it benefits only me.


  6. Great post as usual Mr Ermine. I was involuntarily retired about a year ago (fortunately like you, I was well-prepared). Now-a-days I divide my time into the two broadly defined categories of ‘Casual’ and ‘Serious’ leisure. Casual leisure for me includes fairly typical stuff: travel, wine, music (listening), video gaming and volunteering. Serious leisure includes: wood working, music (playing), aviation, big tree hunting and home improvement projects. As time goes on I find that I want more of the serious stuff. Seems like that it where the real living is. I absolutely loathe the idea of ever again spending any of my remaining days working.


    1. hehe – work is overratedm totally agree 😉 You’ve split casual and serious leisure along the consume and create axis, which is perhaps an insight into how to get more out of leisure – create more!


  7. This is a great topic and deserves further rat-holing. I’ve been FI for 18 months now, and I’ve still not yet got a handle on exactly how I want to invest my time, but I’m sure that this is a more pressing and difficult question than where to invest my money.
    [tl;dr – funny story last para]

    Obviously, social interactions are very important and you lose a lot when you stop working. There must be few truly solitary occupations; even something like writing books I presume must involve a lot of contacts with agents, publishers, fans and so on. And people often cite their relationships with colleagues as the principal source of pleasure in their work.

    I was struck recently when a BBC news snippet covered a dance company production that was based on the movement of workers in a bakery To my eye the dancers’ movements look under-rehearsed and awkward compared to the workers packing bisuits, who were able to perform their packing duties automatically and skillfully whilst chatting cheerfully to their colleagues. I took the dance performance, which lacked the workers’ jolly attitude, to highlight the use of people as automatons serving production, not a celebration of bakery arts as was presented. I guess the bakery workers enjoy their work to the extent they can automate their actions freeing up their minds to engage in banter with their neightbours at work. Factory work capitalises on people’ ability to compartmentalise their learned automatic productive activity and their social interactions, the latter making the former tolerable, thus people are content to spend years standing on the same meter square of factory floor for a few hundred quid a week.

    Would it be better if bisuits were packed by a machine or robot? On the one hand it seems so, as the tasks seem more suited to machines than people, but if the people are out of work as a result of automation then that would be bad for them.

    Biscuit packers may soon face automation, but many other workers and professionals will only be a step behind, we are being warned. So the question becomes not how to make life meaningful and enjoyable once you are past it, but how to find fulfillment throughout life without it deriving from paid work. I think that most people would agree that work should not be the principal source of meaning in one’s life, but overwhelmingly it seems that this is how many of us act.

    PS – funny story
    My favourite funny story about the ‘era of leisure’ that was predicted to emerge at the end of the 20th century is from a Nationwide (70s TV current affairs) vox pop. The interviewer stopped a pregnant woman pushing a double push-chair and with a toddler clinging to her leg. “What do you do with all the extra leisure time we have today?” he asked. Through clenched teeth she glared at him and said “I go to the toilet.”


    1. > I’ve still not yet got a handle on exactly how I want to invest my time

      Some of the problem is that FI changes you, so you’re tracking a moving target. Let’s face it, since you were 5 years old there’s been the whole school-work thing taking up a chunk of every day. Changing that is bound to change you.

      Niall Ferguson listed the Protestant work ethic as one of the killer apps of the west, and it did perhaps serve to get us where we are now. But it will cause untold mental distress in future generations because of the underlying assumptions written deep throughout society that productive work is meaningful in and of itself and it therefore lends meaning and self-respect to a human life. It’s the strivers versus the skivers, but when the strivers are mostly robots and the skivers are mostly human then there’s going to be serious grief in the humans with that cultural background. At least in the past the aristocracy was raised in the belief that they were born to privilege so being a gentleman of leisure didn’t see to bother them much.


  8. It’ll all be a moot point soon enough though, given that our generation will effectively be the last with the luxury to navel-gaze about it. The next generation are being habituated to ever increasing poverty, insecurity & 24/7 distraction through busy-work via the neoliberal austerity program.

    In my working life to date, it was always the assumption that with each new amazing technological advance, life would get easier for us humans, but computing power, electronic storage of data via the web, the internet, the smartphone …..didn’t stop busywork & bullsh*t jobs. Somehow it got worse, people are working longer hours for less pay, the currency has less purchasing power & quality of life is plummeting. For the first time in recent history, the new generations will have a worse life than the one before, so while I can predict the future no better than anyone else, I’ll bet that after AI, people will still be obligated to do something pointless all day to distract them from realising their existence is similarly pointless ……lest they rebel.

    As for people resisting the regression to feudalism, I just don’t see it. It’s ironic that today we wonder how the ancients could destroy their environments by expending all their resources endlessly building white elephant projects, like pyramids …..yet millions of people wake up every day, go to an office & circulate bits of paper achieving nothing beyond timing out their pissant life expectancies. Cest plus la change & all that.


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