Leisure time in Y2K: A brave new world?

Sixty years ago the English essayist Aldous Huxley penned his fantasy vision of the future, “Brave New World.” This futuristic world-state included a high-tech sensory replacement for the cinema (the “movies”), which he called “the feelies.” We don’t have “the feelies” yet, but virtual reality technology (VRT) has us heading in that direction.
VRT has produced computer-generated recreational games that incorporate visual, auditory and, soon, haptic sensations that make these games life-like and closer to reality.
In the next millennium we can anticipate recreational behaviors to encompass both advances in computer-supported recreation and an increasing level of participation in wilderness based recreation: hiking, climbing mountains, camping, etc. As we anticipate these opportunities for recreation, there are certain to be constraints.
First, in the next millennium the United States will be a nation of persons middle-aged and older supported by a smaller population of workers. Life expectancy will be closer to 90 than 70, and this retired class will be consumers of recreation and health care services.
Second, this change in population demographics will have economic implications for supporting the health and wellness of an aging population. The current economic prosperity will continue at least for the next decade, as a booming stock market has delivered spectacular returns for those fortunate enough to be invested.
At the same time, the stock market bonanza has widened the gap between the wealthy and those less fortunate who are experiencing no gain in their real standard of living. The price of oil and food in the United States remains the lowest in the industrial world, and cheap gas and cheap food keep this underclass essentially invisible.
Third, the educational attainment of high school graduates remains low compared to the rest of the industrial nations.
Information technology requires fewer and fewer people to manage and control banking, finance and industry, and with much of the nation’s manufacturing base migrating to countries where labor is cheap, the next millennium will produce social and economic constraints that will impact both our working and recreational lives.
With a combination of a graying America, disparities of wealth and retirement insecurity, it will be critical that we support and develop recreational opportunities supported by community and local government agencies.
Our recreation and leisure pursuits will likely continue across the spectrum of passive or vicarious recreation (being a fan or a spectator), to being direct participants in activities that are supported by technology, but which remain essentially physical.
Our recreational behavior will remain linked to the discretionary dollars available, and given the economic impact of individuals paying to watch highly paid athletes perform live or on television, the pressure to be a passive viewer is growing as we are encouraged to become recreational voyeurs.
The recreation industry is now a half-trillion-dollar-per-year enterprise — more than our national defense budget — with the bulk of the resources being spent on clothing and footwear. There is no substantive correlation between buying sports equipment endorsed by superstars and an individual’s level of participation in recreation, but “looking good” will remain very much in vogue!
At the beginning of this century, a pioneer of recreation education, Luther Gulick, said that “our lives are made better, more dignified, and richer by the constructive use of leisure.”
At the dawn of the new millennium we can look back with some considerable pride at the scope and the depth of recreation in a nation that has weathered the Great Depression, fought in two world wars and two other major conflicts (Korea and Vietnam), and has seen the demise of the only major political and economic force to seriously challenge Western capitalism.
Our nation comprises 12 percent of the world’s population, and consumes 40 percent of the world’s energy. The next millennium will be dominated by American power, culture and recreation.
While the other nations will work to maintain their own cultural and societal identities, it will be impossible to stem the tide and influence of our own diverse culture. Short of some major catastrophe, we will continue to enjoy a wide and diverse set of recreational behaviors, much as we have at present.
As life expectancy reaches nine decades, recreation and leisure will play an increasing role as a reward for a life’s work, and a reflection of our individual wealth. What remains is the problem of the underclass.
Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake!” Will our recreational retort be, “Let them play ball?” We have the opportunity to exploit recreation in the next millennium as a resource for a better quality of life for all — not just the privileged few.

Michael G. Wade is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies.