Cover of book Free Time

Gary S. Cross ’68 History 

New York University Press: 2024


Americans are suffering from an epidemic of insufficient free time and free time that is unfulfilling. The problem has been building for years, Gary S. Cross argues in the first chapter, “The Trouble with Time Today,” of his new book. Free Time examines how people use leisure time and why these ways are often disappointing and frustrating.

Cross writes specifically about free time in America, where workers have an average of 13 paid vacation days and in 2021 toiled 1,767 hours on average. He compares this to the 35 paid vacation days employees receive in Germany, where they put in an average of 1,354 annual work hours.

After a quick review of these concerns, Cross digs deeper, exploring the wide political, cultural, and technological history of free time. His broad, provocative, and approachable yet academic exploration reaches back to the Neolithic Revolution and its rise of fixed farming through the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression to today.

“Capitalism (and its cultural allies) extended and intensified work and discredited old values of carnival and leisure,” Cross writes. “But capitalism also relocated work time, separating it from the space of free time.”

This led to a host of ramifications, especially for affluent and middle-class women who remained home⁠—where their domestic work was, of course, “never done.” Cross not only discusses impacts on gender, but disparities between the rich and the poor, the adoption of the eight-hour workday, and failed expectations. Music, television, cars, carnivals, consumerism, sports, smartphones, and drugs and alcohol make appearances. So does America’s obsession with productivity and the perhaps overvalued idea of work ethic.

Alas, the broad, well-researched history Cross presents does not suggest solutions for the future. “Offering a detailed blueprint for the personal realization of free time for culture is beyond the scope of this book, as is a ‘what is to be done?’ outline of a political and social path that would ease such personal realization,” writes Cross, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Pennsylvania State University.

On a bleak note, Cross ventures, “I am not very encouraged by the fact that a hundred years of advancement in productivity and innovation has not produced a better outcome than the cultural politics that seem to dominate discussions in the halls of government and in homes today.”