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The mysterious decline of our leisure time


A puzzle of modern life is that so many of us feel short on time, even though we work less than our ancestors. In the 19th century, unions campaign for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we want”. In the twentieth century, they succeeded in their push for shorter working hours. But what happened to all this free time that we have earned to do “what we want”?

It is not a problem of perception: we are really short of time. OECD data shows that the average time people spend on leisure has declined since the 1980s. In the 2010s, the average time spent on leisure declined in eight of the 13 countries for which data are available. It fell 14 percent in Korea, 11 percent in Spain, 6 percent in the Netherlands, 5 percent in Hungary and 1 percent in the United States.

The number of people in “time poverty” (which the OECD defines as those for whom the share of time devoted to leisure and regenerative activities is less than 60% of the median) has increased since 2000 in the 10 countries for which data is available.

One of the factors is that the decline in weekly working time has stabilized. Average usual weekly hours have been stuck at around 40 hours for full-time employees in OECD countries since the 1990s. But that alone cannot explain the decline in leisure time.

A to study by the Resolution Foundation, a think tank, compares detailed time use surveys conducted by people in the UK in the 1970s and 2010. Data shows the same pressure on leisure as in other countries , women being more restricted than men. In the 1970s, men and women of working age each had about 6 hours of leisure time per day, while today men have 5 hours and 23 minutes and women 4 hours and 47 minutes.

Women do more paid work than in the 1970s and men do more housework, but the biggest difference is in the time the two groups spend on childcare (which is not classified as a hobby in these surveys). Women spend more than twice as much time on childcare than in the 1970s, although they also spend much more time in paid work. Men also spend much more time caring for children. Which begs the question: who looked after the children in the 1970s?

When I asked this question on Twitter, I was flooded with responses from people who said they mostly played outdoors without adult supervision, returning for meals and bedtime. One of them remembered playing on a construction site; another about wandering around a party sipping the adults’ Bucks Fizz.

Changing parental attitudes towards risk may well be a factor. It is also possible that we see “child care” differently now. Surveys ask people to record their “main activity” throughout the day in 10-minute blocks. Maybe back in the 1970s babysitting was more often something that happened while you were also doing housework or socializing, whereas now it feels more like an activity in itself. Much has been written about the pros and cons of “helicopter parenthood”. As a working mom, I think it’s also possible that working parents just miss their kids and want to focus on them when they get the chance.

There is also a more fundamental change. While we’ve always been multitasking to some extent, technology now makes it more difficult to divide our time between work and play. As Derek Thompson has it writing in the Atlantic, “leisure becomes leaky”. If I watch TV while checking work email on my phone, am I at work or play? What if I watched a funny video while sitting at my desk? And as boundaries dissolve, does work feel better, or hobbies feel worse?

For office workers, the pandemic has blurred the boundaries more than ever. But working from home has also allowed people to recoup the time they spend traveling – precious new time that many staff are reluctant to give up.

Trade unions in some countries are now resuming efforts to reduce working hours. In the United Kingdom, the Trades Union Congress has call for a four-day week, while in Germany and Austria some innovative collective agreements have allowed workers to choose reduced hours rather than higher pay. But the story of the past decades is that even when we work less, we find it hard to rest.

People often regretfully think that John Maynard Keynes was wrong in 1930 when he predicted a transition to a 15 hour work week. But the economist knew it wouldn’t be that easy. “There is no country or people, I think, who can look forward to the era of leisure and abundance without fear,” he wrote. “Because we have been trained too long to struggle and not profit. “

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