This weekend I read an exquisite article on the decline of free time by Stephanie Buck entitled “Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it.” In this essay, Buck reasons that the rise of hobby-based careers has eroded the peace we once enjoyed through pursuing leisure activities. Now that some people have made a living through their hobbies, there is a pressure to make a profit from such activities.
I am part of Generation X, and this article helped me make sense of several culture changes I’ve witnessed over the years. Back in my day, some of us went through a Peter Pan phase of sorts in which we hoped to eke out a living by writing novels or releasing albums on indie labels like Sub Pop. I don’t remember hearing that anyone was hoping to throw over a profession like teaching or engineering to sell cupcakes or fusion tacos for a living, yet these sort of dreams are widespread now. I think the Tiny House movement is related to the decline of true leisure, too. Let’s downsize to the point where one can leave a disliked job and live off a monetized hobby, and that hobby could be selling the story of building and living in as super small house.
I think the Tiny House movement does have value, but I also believe it’s strange that people are pressured into monetizing that experience by blogging about it, etc. Tiny House is crucial because in that movement we finally have an antidote for something we call McMansion here in the U.S., where people built 4000+ square foot homes based on mass-marketed building plans just because they could afford to do so. I think of McMansion as the terminal point of the conspicuous consumption of the late 20th century. Other signs of this sort of consumption were skin-tight Sergio Valenti jeans, watches with solid gold wrist bands and sports cars like the Mazda Miata that had little muscle under their hoods.
Someone needed to stop this mania for buying more and more just to show others one could afford to buy those things. While it is regrettable that there is now an expectation that one should profit financially from a hobby, at least we are moving away from the trend of consumption and spending as a measure of success. It is possible that my grandparents’ generation (born in the 1920’s) had it best in striking a balance between work, leisure and consumption. I think of my paternal grandpa in particular. He worked on the railroad, never drove a car and helped raise five children in a 846 square foot house. His hobby was carpentry, and he used that hobby not for profit but to help furnish his home and give gifts. When I look at the bookshelf he built for me and my siblings, I hope I live to see an era where his sort of life would be considered a great success.