By Confusing the Work‑Leisure Boundary, the Pandemic May Have Changed Leisure Forever
Now that leisure is solitary, what do we do with ourselves?
There is something wrong with the way we have been doing leisure, and the last year and a half have brought this into sharp focus. “[Increased] screen time, revenge procrastination, forgetting how to socialize” is how Neelanjana, 24, a journalist, characterizes it now. “Some days, I’m so tired that I can barely sleep. I know I’m not the only one facing this.”
She is right, as countless other narratives have repeatedly shown. Pandemic time seems to have become an elastic band stretched thin. What we do and how we feel during this time, distorted and broken, is changing, not always for the better. But the way these changes have taken place shows us how leisure was hardly self-fulfilling even before the pandemic — its relationship with work overrode everything else.
Since the industrial revolution, there has been a strict separation between work and leisure, governed by clock time. Like most things, gender, class, and–in India–caste determine this. The pandemic experience, however, has broken down the time boundary that separated work from leisure. Or at least, it did for the salaried class or the “leisure class,” as opposed to the “labor class.”
For Shivani, 27, a behavior architect, the lack of boundaries means that she is more protective of her leisure time. “Pre-covid, leisure was any non-productive time, which could also be social. Not anymore. Leisure is very [much] mine now.”
The sense of taking back ownership of leisure speaks to how the work–leisure binary from pre-pandemic times constrained what leisure could look like and how it was permanently embedded to work as its shadow realm.
Was it leisure to meet colleagues after work? Were social activities, underscored by a desire to carefully curate an outward appearance, really leisure?
“Pre-pandemic, leisure was a full-time occupation. It mattered what you did in your spare time. It was not only self-fulfilling activities or stuff that helped you become a better version of yourself… it was also ‘street cred,’” explains Mathangi Krishnamurthy, cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor at the Humanities and Social Sciences department, IIT Madras. In other words, leisure tended to overlap with performance. What one did for leisure was both a function and a signal of their social and cultural status.
This has changed during the pandemic. “Now, this has been disentangled because you’re not meeting those people anymore. Leisure may have taken on different relationalities in this time,” Krishnamurthy adds.
Therefore, it would seem for many that the pandemic allowed for a chance to redefine one’s relationships and activities without worrying about who is watching or to whom one has obligations during “free” time. “I have boundaries with work, boundaries with family, with my partner, anyone I share space with (physical or cognitive),” says Shivani.
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Previously, moreover, the vocabulary of leisure itself was inextricable from work. “What are you working on this weekend?” was not an unusual question to hear. Take even the notion of self-care: the idea of “working” on oneself. “The imagination of work dominates everything, including leisure,” says Krishnamurthy.
In the pandemic, however, the loss of work — and work structures — dominates the imagination. It also brought into question: what is leisure if we take work and work structures out of the picture?
The detachment from the idea of “productivity” and social obligations freed up leisure for some, such that some activities now feel genuinely pleasurable. Margaret Mead, a celebrated anthropologist in the 20th century, puts it this way: “One significant variable is a sense of freedom: what one does of his own free will must be separated from anything done under coercion, by the need to eat, or survive, or by the will of others.”
While there’s been a separation between what is considered leisure and work, the boundaries between where the two take place have blurred. With every physical space having shut down, virtual spaces are where everyone congregates for most of the waking day. “Regions of play and work were different; now that’s mostly digital,” says Digvijay, 30, a former general manager at an AI startup. Digvijay has adjusted somewhat to the “new normal” — he plays online games, watches films and TV shows on OTT platforms rather than movie theatres, and calls the phenomenon the “digitalization of leisure.” But he isn’t satisfied with this, and he isn’t alone.
The reports on “doomscrolling” shooting up during the pandemic are telling. No matter how many recreational tools are at our disposal online, many inevitably resort to a helpless submersion into an onslaught of social media doom. In other words, snatches of free time in an already unstructured workday don’t necessarily spell zen and freedom for everyone. If the rising success of meditation apps is anything to go by, people seem to be struggling to connect with themselves more than ever — and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that what they filled their time with before was just that, fillers.
There is pervasive anxiety underlying unplanned free time spent online without any external nudge, a sense of “randomness,” as Neelanjana puts it. Essentially, there is no intentionality behind we spend time. The time freed up by the closure of physical spaces, and social obligations make people confront an existential void. The question seems to be: who am I when I am alone, with nowhere to go and nobody to see?
The early aughts of the pandemic began with an optimistic drive to reclaim “me-time,” now that we were “freed” of all our obligations. But why has this devolved into despair, boredom, and angst for so many?
Zooming out shows that leisure is less an individual decision than one sealed by systemic factors.
Women in salaried jobs, for instance, are doing badly by all accounts. What reports have described as the “primal scream” of pandemic motherhood is telling. The pandemic also widened the gap between the leisure and labor classes, showing how one person’s leisure has always been another’s labor. There is a web of social roles and obligations that make leisure a zero-sum game between many individuals. The expansion of the gig economy, particularly of food delivery and transport platforms in India, shows how unstructured work lives for the salaried amount to a complete breakdown of the leisure-work paradigm for others.
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“The leisure class is allowed to sit at home and be asked, ‘what do you feel like eating’… [in response, there is] a giant set of gig economy workers who have no other option because there are no jobs, and everything is shut down,” Krishnamurthy adds.
And yet, nothing seems to be done about this. It would seem that it is up to the individual to decide how they want to balance work and leisure, but what is never questioned is that there should be a balance at all, whom it even exists for, and how the balance has thus far been defined.
Anne Helen Petersen, a cultural commentator, describing how we are made to blame our lack of self-control, rather than the system, puts it succinctly: “[H]ow the system is designed to function … permits the continued erosion of actual leisure — the sort that doesn’t feel like “stolen” hours — to continue without protest.”
However, what the pandemic seems to have done is act as an equalizer in terms of the quality of “leisure” time.
Everyone seems to be spending their time waiting: waiting for the pandemic to end, waiting to return to “normal,” for this state of limbo to pass.
Many in the salaried class have not had to spend their leisure time in waiting ever before. However, those with less power and privilege have always been familiar with the feeling while navigating bureaucracy and public infrastructure. This is because infrastructure and economies are structured for the leisure class’s speed and convenience.
Now, they find themselves in a perpetual state of waiting, according to Sneha Annavarupu, sociologist and Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS. And this feeling is reflected in how many are spending time — on screens, scrolling, and constantly consuming content.
“For the first time, a lot of us who are used to feelings of seamlessness — in terms of upward mobility, transport, travel — suddenly have to stop and pause, and it’s an unfamiliar and strange experience,” says Annavarupu.
If the pandemic has done anything, it has exposed how capitalist intertwining of leisure and work and separation of classes through labor has squeezed society dry of unadulterated and pure pleasure for its own sake.
But instead of allowing people to sit up and reconfigure their lives towards more self-fulfillment, the pandemic seems to have had the opposite effect.
People are pining to go back to “normal,” what used to be familiar, but not necessarily fulfilling all the time. “Normal” means going back to the social and cultural obligations we were so eager to throw off at first.
The shift in how work relates to time, and the subsequent effects on leisure, have shown how transient leisure can be. It seems like we have forgotten how we should experience leisure and why it is so vital to liberate it from work. Rather than providing a means to free this connection, the pandemic only seems to have confused it by removing the strict leisure-work separation, distorting it into something we don’t yet understand or recognize. And perhaps, we never did recognize it:
“[O]ur inability to recover the original meaning of “leisure,” will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of “work” has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole,” wrote philosopher Josef Pieper, way back in 1948.
In other words, there is no “going back” to previous forms of leisure if we never knew what it was meant to do. It has taken a global catastrophe beyond all proportions to realize just how much we have lost along the way.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.