Christian moralists long promoted hobbies as a way to occupy idle hands, bringing the work ethic into our free time. Today hobbies risk turning into side hustles — yet they also point to what work might look like if it wasn’t about making money.

Etching of friends playing a game of chess, dated to the nineteenth century. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Speaking on German radio in 1969, philosopher Theodor W. Adorno expressed his surprise at how often we get asked about our hobbies. Whenever he got this question himself, it shocked him, he explained, only to declare in typically contrarian fashion, “I have no hobbies.” He saw the hobby as a form of bourgeois ideology. Where capitalism makes labor a commodity, likewise in the form of the hobby, leisure is made into a thing, as “organized freedom.”

Adorno was already rather old-fashioned for his time — and since he delivered that radio lecture, asking people about their hobbies has become almost banal. From the informal sphere — small talk with strangers, dating apps — to more formal settings — a job interview, an application form — the question of hobbies pops up everywhere. The question is innocuous enough — though sometimes it has a clear normative element. Those without hobbies are socially maladjusted — workaholics or else lazy idlers.

Although the notion of having hobbies has become ordinary, it’s still a subject of discussion. Many millennials realize that they simply don’t have any hobbies, and, as an article in the Financial Times recently signaled, certain hobbies, such as collecting stamps or old postcards, have long been in decline. Trivial as such observations might seem, they point to the deeper question of the contemporary relation between work and leisure — and our ability to reclaim our free time.

The Rise of the Hobby

The hobby as we know it today is intertwined with the history of capitalism. In his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, historian Steven Gelber traces the changing meaning of the hobby. Whereas until 1880 it still referred to a “dangerous obsession,” thereafter it increasingly took on the exclusive meaning of “productive leisure.”

Originally, the word “hobby” referred to a small horse or pony. In the eighteenth century, it took on the meaning of a preoccupation, an obsession that is mostly trivial and comical. This is well-illustrated in the novel Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s comic masterpiece published in five installments between 1759 and 1767, which popularized the term “hobby horse.” The character Uncle Toby is obsessed with military strategy; the narrator, Tristram Shandy, reveals toward the end of the book that writing it was his hobby horse.

Only in the nineteenth century did the term gradually lose its equine connotation and start referring more and more to a group of leisure activities. The Industrial Revolution had already begun to drive urbanization and the disciplining of labor, and in this context, the workers’ movement fought for the eight-hour working day. Karl Marx called shortening working hours “the basic condition” for freedom. In increased leisure time, the working class sought relief from the pressures of work. But, as Gelber shows in his fascinating history, the upper classes saw increased leisure for the working class as a problem: idleness could lead to dangerous ideas, vice, or criminal activities. Reformers and moralists saw the solution in occupations that were decent and virtuous: hobbies.

The upper classes saw increased leisure for the working class as a problem: idleness could lead to dangerous ideas, vice, or criminal activities.

At the turn of the century, sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that higher classes in society have always defined themselves by having economically unproductive occupations and pursuits (such as government, war, sports, and religion), while the lower classes are tied to manual labor. He coined the term “conspicuous leisure,” referring to the activities that serve to display social status. With the development of the leisure class, for example, hunting breaks down into two different activities: one as “a trade, carried on chiefly for gain,” and the second as a sport. According to Veblen, the lower classes would have imitated the pastimes for the upper classes, which can explain the rise of the hobby.

By 1930, the hobby was increasingly used to distinguish between “good” and “bad” uses of leisure time. In the United States, the education system, municipalities, and voluntary organizations promoted having hobbies. After World War II, hobby culture commercialized. Hobby shops and sports shops sprung up. On the other hand, hobbyists no longer anxiously tried to shield the hobby from commercial motives, and the idea of “making your hobby your job” became commonplace.

Between Ideology and Utopian Anticipation

The hobby is the bourgeois form of leisure par excellence. It holds the middle ground between work and leisure. For this reason, it is described as “productive” or “serious” leisure. It is leisure time spent in a socially sanctioned way. This points to the ideological side of the hobby: although it involves a seemingly completely free use of one’s free time, it is done in a way that is consistent with a certain work ethic.

From this point of view, Gelber aptly describes the hobby as a form of “disguised affirmation”: an activity that is diversion while being at the same time ideological recreation. While it copied the beliefs and behavior necessary for capitalism, at the same time it offered relief from the centralized organization of production. As he writes of the hobby after 1880: “As disguised affirmation, hobbies were a Trojan horse that brought the ideology of the factory and office into the parlor.”

And indeed, defenders of the work ethic point out the need for hobbies. It is a meaningful way to spend one’s free time, as opposed to mere idling. This idea can be found on both the Right and the Left. But while for the old work ethic, the hobby existed alongside paid work, or the new capitalist work ethic that emerged in the 1970s, having a hobby is made wholly functional to paid work.

As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval have shown, this ethos encourages the individual to see themselves as a small business, with goals and strategies. It views its own activities as “a process of self-valorization.” So, for this new work ethic, pursuing a hobby not only gives you the chance to “recharge” from work, it also teaches “abilities” and “skills,” expands your network, and — above all — increases workplace “performance.” “Dancing might not be the first hobby that springs to mind when you think about management,” one magazine on CEOs’ lifestyles tells us. “However, the precision required to complete the moves and the element of partnership will provide you with great transferable skills.”

Conservatives often employ a purely moral argument for having hobbies. In the Christian tradition, idleness is associated with sin, as expressed in the saying “the devil finds work for idle hands.” The important thing about hobbies is that they keep the individual occupied. Translated to society as a whole, this pessimistic anthropology implies that idleness can cause social unrest. The hobby-less individual is potentially even politically dangerous.

But it is simultaneously inaccurate and far too reductive to view hobbies merely as ideology, as a mirror-image of the values of the workplace. More than just a necessary “compensation” for work, there is also a critical element in this form of leisure.

Where it can be lonely in the workplace, shared hobbies bring people together in communities. The shared activity can be the basis for other things, from friendships to politics. Also, some hobby communities have a clear subversive dimension, such as a feminist reading club, or a radical football club. But above all, hobbies, as forms of activity carried out in freedom, can offer the pleasure and creativity denied to us in the workplace. In a utopian register, hobbies give us a taste of what shared and free work might look like in the future.

No Time for Hobbies

As a form of leisure activity that requires some time investment, the hobby presupposes a society with a clear separation between work and leisure. Today the growth of the gig economy and various forms of precarization are increasingly dissolving the separation between work and leisure. The home is increasingly seen as an extension of the workplace.

In a capitalist society, time is also unevenly distributed. In relation to precarization, British economist Guy Standing has shown that people who have a steady salary and those others in precarious employment — the “precariat” — have an unequal control over their time. This is not only because of the measurable lack of paid leave. The elite and a part of those with a steady salary can engage in recreation within labor time, by going out to lunch or doing sports at the office. By contrast, precarious workers are sometimes unpaid “on call,” have to work to get a new employment contract and often do not have the means to delegate work, for instance by hiring an accountant.

With so much paid and unpaid work, many people simply do not have time for hobbies.

Certainly, much work is already unpaid — especially of course care work, which is everywhere still disproportionately carried out by women. With so much paid and unpaid work, many people simply do not have time for hobbies. Added to this is the hustle culture, which is especially very present in the United States. Even objectively having the time for a hobby doesn’t mean subjectively experiencing it that way, because always being at work is the norm. “Having no time for hobbies” has, perversely, itself become a social status symbol.

Still, we’re also spending more time connected to each other, albeit online. Currently, internet users worldwide spend an average of 151 minutes a day on social media. Tech companies’ business model depends on the temptation to spend as much time as possible on these platforms. This may perhaps explain why online culture is permeated by such nostalgia for hobbies involving manual labor. On social media, there is a constant stream of clips and tutorials about cooking, knitting, brewing beer, or fixing things in and around the house. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a surge of people taking up such hobbies in the United States and Europe. For example, baking became so popular in the United States that there was a shortage of flour.

The Struggle for Leisure

Not surprisingly, in response to the ubiquitous cult of work, “doing nothing” has taken on a special sheen. This has been picked up by the self-help industry, which has devoted countless books and articles to “the art of doing nothing.”

A recent variant of this is the hype around niksen, a Dutch word for “doing nothing.” It was popularized by Polish writer Olga Mecking, who described it in a 2019 New York Times article as taking “conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless.” It is strange to choose a word from a culture known for its Protestant work ethic. Moreover, it is normatively loaded: here in the Netherlands, niksen means admitting to doing nothing, even though you should be doing something useful. It says a lot about today’s obsession with work that these days you have to read a book to learn to do nothing.

A critical reflection on the hobby, as “productive leisure,” does not mean the uncritical embrace of doing nothing. Besides viewing it as a form of organized freedom, Adorno also didn’t like the hobby because the term implies a limited degree of seriousness. In other words, it means that you shouldn’t take your activity “too seriously” and that you voluntarily remain an “amateur.” Adorno himself passionately composed and listened to music and therefore viewed the word “hobby” as a derogatory way of talking about these activities.

Reflecting on the seemingly innocuous theme of the hobby ultimately leads to an important question: What would leisure look like if it was no longer shaped by the dynamics of exploited and alienated labor? For the Left, establishing nonexploitative labor and more control in the workplace also implies the struggle for sufficient and equal free time for all. And it is not too utopian to speculate that in such truly free time — that could be spent on serious pursuits, or just relaxation — the classical “hobby” might just lose its appeal as a refuge from the horrors of modern work.

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