The ‘leisure class’ has not, in general, enjoyed a good reputation, suggestive as it is of indolence, degenerate European aristocrats and conspicuous consumption. But maintaining and growing its members will in fact be essential to the future of the UK economy.
This is particularly the case with the creative sector. A key factor in its success in developed nations is what the Work Foundation describes as the ‘apex consumer’ – educated, discerning customers who demand novel, well-designed products, and hence impel businesses to innovate. The history of the creative industries of the last fifty years bears this out, whether it was the middle classes of the 1960s who flocked to Habitat stores, or the late-twentieth century digerati who helped turn the internet into a medium for retail and entertainment.
Rising disposable incomes are obviously a big part of this story: creative products are classic examples of what economists call ‘luxury goods’ in which demand increases disproportionally with income. But crucially, what the creative industries require is not simply wealthy, or even sophisticated, consumers – it needs consumers with time, the most important of all scarce resources and the one most often overlooked. It is free time which not only provides the opportunity for many artists and writers to make creative things, but even more importantly, gives people the chance to consume them.
Although commonly regarded as its antithesis, leisure has in fact long been associated with economic development. For all the urban squalor associated with industrialisation, increased leisure time and popular culture, whether in the form of concert halls or football clubs, proved to be its more enduring legacy. And while the organized labour movement played a crucial role in achieving this, it was by no means the only reason: Henry Ford, the greatest industrialist of his age, helped to introduce the five-day working week in America, recognising that people needed weekends if they were actually going to have time to drive the cars he was manufacturing.
But since then, it is striking how little progress there has been towards growing our leisure capacity. In the UK, the right to a paid holiday was established before the war, but it is still no more than four weeks, plus eight public bank holidays – the lowest in Europe. Many professionals fail to actually take their full holiday entitlement, while mobile communication technologies have meant that work is increasingly blurring and encroaching upon our free time. In contrast to the predictions of western commentators a generation ago, the average number of working hours per week has actually increased over the last twenty years.
Ironically, it is creative employers themselves who are among the worst culprits. Some of the country’s most over-worked, exploited and time-poor professionals are those working in design, media and entertainment. Yet, these are also exactly the people who ought to have more time to consume creative products. Many of us are surrounded by books we haven’t read or music we don’t listen to, while the digital economy has led to advanced systems for tagging, storing and displaying our favourite film and television shows, but not the time to actually watch them.
Two centuries of technological innovation, labour specialisation and international trade have resulted in extraordinary productivity gains, but now they must give us more time – rather than just time-saving gadgets. We badly need the next stage of consumer capitalism, in which the leisure classes are widened and democratized, and people have the opportunity to enjoy the culture we are actually producing. There are sound environment reasons why people should work fewer days and have longer holidays. It would almost certainly make us happier and healthier. But for creative businesses, if that wasn’t motivation enough, it would also mean a larger market and more revenue.