This all changed, writes Cross, during the Industrial Revolution, which replaced farms with factories and farmers with employees. Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play. Meanwhile, clocks—which were becoming widespread at that time—began to give life a quicker pace, and religious leaders, who traditionally endorsed most festivities, started associating leisure with sin and tried to replace rowdy festivals with sermons.
As workers started moving into cities, families no longer spent their days together on the farm. Instead, men worked in factories, women stayed home or worked in factories, and children went to school, stayed home, or worked in factories too. During the workday, families became physically separated, which affected the way people entertained themselves: Adults stopped playing “childish” games and sports, and the streets were mostly wiped clean of fun, as middle- and upper-class families found working-class activities like cockfighting and dice games distasteful. Many such diversions were soon outlawed.
With workers’ old outlets for play having disappeared in a haze of factory smoke, many of them turned to new, more urban ones. Bars became a refuge where tired workers drank and watched live shows with singing and dancing. If free time means beer and TV to a lot of Americans, this might be why.
At times, developed societies have, for a privileged few, produced lifestyles that were nearly as play-filled as hunter-gatherers’. Throughout history, aristocrats who earned their income simply by owning land spent only a tiny portion of their time minding financial exigencies. According to Randolph Trumbach, a professor of history at Baruch College, 18th-century English aristocrats spent their days visiting friends, eating elaborate meals, hosting salons, hunting, writing letters, fishing, and going to church. They also spent a good deal of time participating in politics, without pay. Their children would learn to dance, play instruments, speak foreign languages, and read Latin. Russian nobles frequently became intellectuals, writers, and artists. “As a 17th-century aristocrat said, ‘We sit down to eat and rise up to play, for what is a gentleman but his pleasure?’” Trumbach says.
It’s unlikely that a world without work would be abundant enough to provide everyone with such lavish lifestyles. But Gray insists that injecting any amount of additional play into people’s lives would be a good thing, because, contrary to that 17th-century aristocrat, play is about more than pleasure. Through play, Gray says, children (as well as adults) learn how to strategize, create new mental connections, express their creativity, cooperate, overcome narcissism, and get along with other people. “Male mammals typically have difficulty living in close proximity to each other,” he says, and play’s harmony-promoting properties may explain why it came to be so central to hunter-gatherer societies. While most of today’s adults may have forgotten how to play, Gray doesn’t believe it’s an unrecoverable skill: It’s not uncommon, he says, for grandparents to re-learn the concept of play after spending time with their young grandchildren.