what happened to leisure time?

(Hyde Park, NY) I am at FDR’s historic home with (as it happens) a bunch of labor organizers and others concerned with work. On a break, we had a chance to visit the house where the New Deal president was born–we even saw the bed where that blessed event happened–and where he spent most of his life. He was a busy man: Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, President of the United States for 13 epic years. And yet he also had time to collect one million stamps and more than 20,000 books, many of them about naval history, a special interest of his. He also welcomed many house guests and obviously socialized constantly. He had a dog and was interested in birds.

Where did he find the time for all these hobbies? I know hardly anyone who has enough spare time for the equivalent of stamp collecting, even though they aren’t Commanders in Chief during World War II. Here are three explanation for where the time has gone:

  1. Roosevelt had servants and a wife and a mother who did lots of work within the family. His leisure simply came from privilege. I think this is partly true, but even if he had lived alone without┬ákids, it’s hard to imagine how he could have found the time for hobbies while leading the free world.
  2. He was free of some time-wasters. As it happens, he owned just about the only TV set in the world at the time, the very machine that had been exhibited at the World’s Fair. But there was nothing to watch on it. That actual┬áTV, still preserved in his house, stands as a symbol of time that he couldn’t waste.
  3. He had more free time than we do because he could communicate less. Once he mailed a letter, he just had to wait for a response. In contrast, we get thousands and thousands of emails and texts each year, and they bounce back and forth constantly, many of them reaching whole lists of people who feel the need to keep up with the constant flow. My hypothesis: too much communication is using up our lives. Receiving and sending we waste our powers.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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