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One Year Off, Every Seven Years

How about this for a demand? You work for six years and you get a whole paid year off to do whatever the hell you want.

Vacationers on motorcycles in 1974. Boyd Norton / US National Archives

Our world is a marvel. There’s a place in the Alhambra called the Court of the Myrtles, where at night the moon reflects off a pond teeming with goldfish and lights up the impossibly ornate fretwork on the arches above. With knowledge, materials, and time, a person can create their own new orchid hybrid, never before seen on Earth, or fashion a wooden automaton topped with a hand-carved figurine that twirls or dances on command.

Most people don’t spend very much of their time engaging with the world’s wonders. Instead, most people work, and when they’re done working, they attend to unnecessarily arduous life-maintenance tasks, and if they happen to have time left over, they’re often too exhausted to do much besides watch television or sleep.

This is a travesty. The world belongs to the living, and our lives are fragile and fleeting. More people should visit the Court of the Myrtles, or at least finally get around to learning the banjo or hitting the archives to flesh out that family tree.

Socialism takes as its aim maximum freedom for humans, on the grounds that life is short and people ought to live a little. Capitalism is at odds with this aim. Under capitalism, the work that has to be done, the amount of labor people have to perform, and how much that labor is compensated are decisions made almost entirely on the basis of how much private profit they will generate for the handful of people who own companies.

Socialism aims to flip this script: we should decide together what society we want to live in, and allocate work accordingly. All work would be of some justifiable use to society, there would be less of it, and all of it would be compensated fairly — with basic needs like housing, health care, and education guaranteed and not dependent on one’s job. This would mean more free time and more capacity to enjoy that free time. It would mean the ability to ask and answer the existential question of what is worth doing with our lives.

We aren’t going to replace capitalism with socialism overnight, but we can hasten capitalism’s demise by fighting for reforms that put these socialist ideas and values into motion. These reforms have the potential to convince people how much better life can be if we refuse to play by capitalism’s rules. If undertaken in the spirit of eventually ending capitalism altogether, they can also materially free people up to take on even bigger fights down the road.

In the 1990s, trade unionists and socialists in the United States formed a Labor Party. The political circumstances of this experiment were unfavorable and it didn’t gain much traction, but the Labor Party’s program was full of demands that elevated the value of free time and the right of working people to lead their lives. A whole plank of the platform, titled “More Time for Family and Community,” was devoted to preventing working people’s precious time from being gobbled up by work. These included a shorter workweek, twenty mandatory paid vacation days for all, and one year’s paid leave for every six years of work.

This last demand is the most thrilling one. Imagine that: you work for six years and you are promised a whole paid year off to do whatever you want, with your job still waiting for you afterwards. What would people do with this time?

Probably some would sit around eating Doritos and playing video games — and that’s fine, because playing games is a pleasurable part of the human experience, and people have a right to leisure. But most people wouldn’t do that the entire time, because most of the Doritos-and-game sessions that occur under capitalism are people stealing a moment to relax and unwind amid the constant pressures of work and tedious life administration, like refinancing their student loans and calling around to see which doctors are in network.

Some people would probably start out the year Doritos-and-gaming, and then grow tired of it. What might they dream up next? Maybe their favorite part of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was the part where they got to engage in hand-to-hand combat on the rooftops of the Alhambra. Maybe they decide to book a plane ticket out of the US for the first time in their lives, and they end up at the Court of the Myrtles, watching the goldfish pond ripple gently beneath the full moon.

There’s no limit to what people would decide to do with their sabbatical, and that’s the point. Humans are capable of so much, and so few ever really get to explore their own capabilities.

One person might learn to kayak, and from then on they’d have the option of kayaking on weekends, enhancing their quality of life for decades to come. Another person might indulge a longstanding curiosity they’d always harbored by reading some books on, say, early childhood development — and then discover that they were actually more interested in being a preschool teacher than being a typist, leading them to change careers to a more fulfilling one.

A person who never got to go to college, much less study abroad, might spend a whole year in Nagasaki learning Japanese. While there, they might also learn about the legacy of the atom bomb, deepening their understanding of the risks of nuclear proliferation. When they return, they might go back to life as usual — except now they can watch anime without subtitles, and maybe refuse to vote for politicians who support nuclear weapons. Maybe they even become a nuclear disarmament activist!

A society capable of successfully advancing a demand like this would need to have a stronger socialist, or at least social-democratic, movement than our society today. By the time we get around to making the sabbatical a reality, we would ideally also have a job guarantee in place, meaning that every person who is able to work can do so, and therefore become eligible for a paid year off every six years. A regular paid sabbatical wouldn’t just be for those lucky enough to avoid unemployment — it would be for everyone who works.

This society would also already be capable of guaranteeing paid parental leave, which would decrease the likelihood that people would try to align starting a family with their sabbatical. We don’t want people using the sabbatical to do things that they ought to already have a right to do, like spend time with their newborn children. Same goes for job training — people should be able to leave work to get better training whenever they want, at no cost to them, and then reenter the workforce in a more specialized capacity once their training is completed. This is to the benefit of society, since more skilled workers means a more functional society and more prosperity for all.

The sabbatical should be for leisure, pleasure, and curiosity. It should be for travel, ceramics classes, and making graphic novel adaptations of eleventh-century Icelandic sagas that nobody asked for. It should be a time when, after six years of putting in hours to make our world run smoothly, each person gets to explore and enjoy that world for themselves.

The capitalists won’t like it, but they didn’t like the weekend either. The weekend was won by a powerful movement of working people asserting that the time of their lives should belong to them, not to those who would wring them dry for profit.

The demand for a sabbatical would have to be won the same way. And in the process of fighting for and winning that demand, many working people would come to realize that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we assign value and allocate work. If guided and influenced by those who have already come to understand that capitalism is not conducive to human flourishing, more than a few would set their sights on socialism instead.