There is a scene in The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington’s tale of the Gilded Age, in which George, the young scion of what used to be called an American dynasty, is asked what profession he intends to take up. “None,” he replies. “Lawyers, bankers, politicians—what do they ever get out of life?”
“But what do you want to be?” a confused belle inquires.
This was a time when a man of means would proudly emblazon on his calling card (back when men carried calling cards instead of business cards) that he was a man of leisure. Your grandfather probably considered the wanton wasting of time a wise investment, but today we are working harder than ever, and even if we are not, we feel as though we should be. The wheels of industry churn ever faster, even carrying along those who could afford to be doing something far less strenuous. Which is why the man of leisure is as outdated today as the derby or bowler, a relic from a time when many people were less harried, less serious, and less guilty—for guilt has become the price for leisure.
There is a term for the elegant idleness the rich can enjoy: conspicuous leisure. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, saw it as a distinguishing brand of class consciousness in which useful behavior is seen as a sign of inferiority. But in our déclassé époque, most people do not know how not to work. If there is not some immediate task at hand—say, leveraging a buyout—they grow weary with a taedium vitae. But surely, to have vast resources and be bored betrays a terrible lack of imagination. Something is terribly wrong when the world’s richest man gets up at 6 o’clock each morning to work on computers. No doubt Mr. Gates would tell you he is far happier running Microsoft than he would be hunting quail, but for this I can never forgive him.
So, did the man of leisure leave by his own will, or did we run him out of town? In gentler, stratified eras, wealthy men made a cult of leisure. In Regency England, the birthplace of dandyism, Beau Brummell affected the blasé air of a man who was too busy seeing his tailor, playing cards, and betting on horses to take a vocation. For this smart set, doing nothing was an exhausting endeavor. And while there would no doubt be talk if you were to, say, impregnate a chambermaid, the fallout would be far less damaging than if you were to study law.
A few years later, in the middle of the 19th century, poet Charles-Pierre Baudelaire would call the dandy an “unemployed Hercules” generously endowed with time and money, requisite ingredients for turning fantasy into reality and life into art. The cult of leisure continued through the 1950s, where it appears in the guise of the swingin’ bachelor, fresh from V-E Day and basking in the glorious trappings of the Eisenhower Era: Italian sports cars, tiki lounges, jazz, and the mambo.
The social consciousness of the 1960s reawakened our Protestant work ethic with the shock therapy of socialism. It became wrong to have what most coveted: the freedom not to worry about money. That this is an illusion lost upon the have-nots only makes their resentment all the more futile. So now we all work and wonder where the years have gone. Just as men of leisure and business attire began to disappear, sportswear gave the illusion of being at leisure, while in fact we were frantically checking e-mail at stoplights.
Retirement awaits, but not until we are too old to enjoy it. This socially sanctified allotment of leisure is something that is earned—paid for with the sweat of 40 years. An able-bodied man today would be damned by his peers were he to announce his intention of living for pleasure, of launching a hedonistic quest to see all and know all, to think and feel and laugh and love under the perpetual rainbow of freedom that only money can buy. Today a man of means would be shunned even by his own class were he to refer to himself as a man of leisure.
Noël Coward tried to do that 50 years ago. This multitalented man of the working class labored day and night so he could pretend to be a man of leisure. This is a changing world, he once sang. Ain’t that the truth.