I remember as a child being fascinated by predictions of what life would be like in decades to come. In the ninety fifties, predictions didn’t include the Internet or mobile communications. Nor were microwave ovens, responsive cruise control, or personal computers. Some ideas have not been realised. I can recall seeing illustrations of high tech cities with high speed personal transport such as flying cars or vehicles that could attach themselves to trains of similar vehicles to improve traffic density, efficiency and safety.
The sixties were similar except that large scale computers were predicted to be commonplace, along with supersonic air and rail transport. One concept that was being considered was the prospect of mankind having more leisure time than he knew what to do with and this is what I want to touch on in this post..
The thirty five hour week was predicted to be just years away and a four day week was thought to be only a decade or so away. We were being encouraged to find interests that would keep us occupied during the long weekends and at the end of a shortened working day. I can remember in the late sixties and early seventies there were concerns that unless we learnt how to occupy our leisure time,the boredom might lead to social unrest.
It was envisioned that full employment would continue as working hours would reduce as productivity increased. Flexible working hours and job sharing were expected to become the norm. The gap between rich and poor had been decreasing for decades and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t continue to do so.
So what happened to that future? Where did it go? I’m not sure entirely. Some of it disappeared in the oil crises in the last decades of the twentieth century and some went with the financial collapse that followed.
A lot more has gone into the pockets of the owners of capital. The wealth that we were told would trickle down to the masses is trickling up the the wealthy few. In fact it seems to be more of a torrent than a trickle. The forty hour working week, which was protected by legislation is now only a memory belonging to those of us over fifty. Poverty was the result of life-style choices, now twenty percent of school children come from households that are below the poverty line.
I grew up in a very egalitarian society, where professionals and unskilled labourers lived side by side. I played with children whose parents were lawyers, bankers, doctors, teachers, business owners, freezing workers, tradesmen and shop assistants. How many children have that opportunity today? Now we have whole suburbs where families are on or below the poverty line, and at the other end of the spectrum we see walled communities sprouting up where BMWs, Lexuses and Ferraris outnumber children.
Single income families were the norm. It was very unusual for both parents to work. Latchkey children were virtually unheard of. Today we see the rise of the working poor, where both parents hold down more than one job, and are still unable to send their children of to school on an adequate breakfast or with something to eat for lunch.
University was a place of higher learning where students were encouraged to discover for the sake of discovery. Today they are little more than factories churning out industry specific qualifications — something that was once the role of polytechnics. Any research still undertaken is for short term industry specific goals. What has happened to pure research and even long term research greater than two years?
Continuing adult education was available to all, either free or at nominal cost in every community. Everything from home economics to glass blowing to second language learning motor vehicle maintenance, and everything in between was available and we were encouraged to take advantage of them to ensure that we would be able make best of the free time we had then and the even greater free time we expected soon. All now gone because they were “not justifiable as they didn’t improve productivity”. How about being socially justifiable? Apparently social well being now takes second place to national wealth, which is being held by a decreasing percentage of the population.
Was the lifestyle we were heading towards in the mid twentieth century just an aberration on the road to pure capitalism or is it something that is still worth striving for?