Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about leisure in the United States.

Last week, Uber announced its plans to roll out its first self-driving car initiative next month in Pittsburgh. The move shouldn’t come as a surprise: Uber has been running a well-funded self-driving car program internally for years. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the goal is “to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers — as quickly as possible.”

Robot workers and the “automation bomb” loom even as some Americans find themselves working more hours than ever. Yet at both extremes, a similar question arises: What will all of those out-of-work humans do? When we aren’t working, how should we make our time matter?

Without an answer, many wealthy but overworked Americans seem willing (or at least have resigned themselves) to forgo the free time they do receive. In the United States, the number of unused vacation days is at a 40-year high, despite the fact that most workers wish that they had more.

Yet the prospect of fewer working hours for their blue-collar counterparts seems to fill many with dread. One of the persistent pushbacks to the idea of a universal basic income is a fear that too much leisure will lead to degeneracy — that if people aren’t made to work, they’ll just sit in front of a television or computer.

But this response suggests that we as a society have lost our understanding of what leisure time should be and why it has value. We’ll need to regain a better understanding of leisure both to preserve society in a post-work world and to save it from an all-work one.

So what should leisure be? In classical philosophy, leisure is is lauded as essential to a fulfilling life. Aristotle stated that “we are un-leisurely in order to have leisure” —  in other words, we work to have time for other things. But those other things aren’t just “doing nothing” or even resting up for the next workday. In a philosophical context, leisure is meant to be something else entirely: time in which we can be free to do things that matter to us, activities undertaken for their own sake rather than as a means to another end.

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The Way it Was: How people used to spend their leisure time

The early part of my life was before we had television, the Internet, jet propelled aircraft, automobiles and a whole lot of new things. I am just at the right age to remember what it was like before all of those things changed our world.

I have often been asked, very seriously, what it was really like without a car, television and a computer. To my recollection, the greatest differences were that we spent more leisure time at home, and we were closer to our relatives, friends and neighbors

An annual, all-day highlight was when the family packed a picnic lunch and spent the day at a nearby amusement park.

Euclid Beach and Geauga Lake parks were “the place to go.” Parking was free, there was no admission charge, and you could come and stay as long as you wished. If you wanted hot coffee with your picnic lunch, in some cases, the 5 cents it cost was all you needed to spend for a full day of leisure, pleasure and enjoyment.

I haven’t been to Cedar Point in decades, but I hear that it costs close to $100 just to get into the place.

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