Time, work and leisure

Life changes in England since 1700

Author: Hugh Cunningham

This book provides the first history of how we have imagined and used time since 1700. It traces the history of the relationship between work and leisure, from the 'leisure preference' of male workers in the eighteenth century, through the increase in working hours in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to their progressive decline from 1830 to 1970. It examines how trade union action was critical in achieving the decline; how class structured the experience of leisure; how male identity was shaped by both work and leisure; how, in a society that placed high value on work, a 'leisured class' was nevertheless at the apex of political and social power – until it became thought of as 'the idle rich'. Coinciding with the decline in working hours, two further tranches of time were marked out as properly without work: childhood and retirement.

By the mid-twentieth century married men had achieved a work- leisure balance. In the 1960s and 1970s it was argued that leisure time would increase at a rapid rate. This false prediction coincided with the entry of married women into the labour market and a halt to the decline in working hours and in sectors of the economy a reversal of it. These two developments radically changed the experience of time and thinking about it. Time became equated with achieving a 'work-life balance' where 'life' was often unpaid childcare and domestic work.

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‘Hugh Cunningham's latest book provides a detailed and rich account of the modern experience of time in England, approaching time as a social phenomenon traversed and shaped by class and gender relations, and time regimes (which can be defined as more or less institutionalized public conceptions and practices of time) as shaped by collective agencies, cultural narratives, economic development and technological change. Framed as an intervention on the topic of the history of time experience, the book can also be considered as a contribution to social history, as well as labour studies, with a sharp focus on the development of the relationship between work and leisure in England from the 17th to the 20th century.'
Jonathan Martineau
Marx and Philosophy Review of Books
December 2015

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