Most people in the UK are spending less time on leisure than they did 40 years ago, even though average paid working hours have fallen, a new report shows.
The research by the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, calls into question the assumption that gains in productivity — resulting in a shorter working week — would allow people to spend more time on sport, socialising or other hobbies, the trend that had prevailed for decades until the 1970s.
“This isn’t how people’s lives have changed over the past four decades, desirable as it may be,” said George Bangham, economist at the Resolution Foundation. “Men are doing less paid work, while women are doing more. Both have less time for play — with childcare up and leisure time down.”
Women were spending 45 minutes a day longer on paid work in 2014-15 than they did in 1974, the report said, while also spending almost half an hour extra on active childcare. They had freed up time for this by spending much less time on cooking, socialising and sport.
Men’s average paid working hours had fallen over the same period but they were spending more time on unpaid work, such as cooking or shopping, and on childcare — while both men and women were sleeping more than they did in the 1970s.
However, these averages mask big differences between more and less prosperous households.
The Resolution Foundation said that while men and women were taking on a more equal share of paid and unpaid work — with total work now split roughly evenly between them — new divisions had emerged between households at different income levels.
In households in the top income quartile, men’s paid work time was little changed while women were working significantly longer hours. In the lowest income quartile, however, paid work time had fallen even for women, while men were working a full three hours fewer a day than in 1974.
This made low income men the only demographic group with more leisure time — spent watching television, playing video games or on the computer.
It also meant that the gap in total hours of paid work between low and high income households had grown from 40 minutes in 1974 to 4 hours 20 minutes in 2014-15, according to the report.
Mr Bangham said calls for policymakers to aim for a four-day working week were misguided, because — although many people would welcome shorter hours — such a top-down policy would chiefly benefit higher income men, and would not necessarily lead to more leisure.
“As many households rethink their time use in light of the lockdown, it’s important to remember that while some people want to work fewer hours, others want or need to work more,” he said.
The priority for many people on low incomes was to secure longer hours and more control over how they worked, the Resolution Foundation said — noting that while the pandemic had led some people to consider cutting commuting and working more flexibly, “for others, particularly lower earners, the impact of the crisis is a deeply unwanted reduction in their working hours”.
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