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  1. The Weekend Report
1 April 2023

The politics of free time

Exclusive to the New Statesman, a new 40-year analysis of time use diaries reveals why Britons feel burnt out.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Since 1974, the UK has suffered a four-decade decline in socialising. “Time-use diaries”, where individuals note down their activities each day in sequential ten-minute intervals, expose a widespread loss and distortion of our free time.

In 1961, the BBC wanted to know when people were most available for TV and radio transmissions, so it commissioned members of the public to fill in printed structured diary booklets. A decade later, the social researcher Dr Jonathan Gershuny reanalysed this data, and began in 1974 to gather time diaries from 10,000 people. This large-scale UK survey is still collected today by the Centre for Time Use Research; it reveals how people aged eight and over spend their time.

According to new analysis of time-diary data since 1974, shared exclusively with the New Statesman by the British centre-right think tank Onward, as a nation we are spending less time seeing our friends, eating at restaurants, going out, exercising and volunteering.

[See also: The rise of scheduling free time]

Anti-socialising behaviour

On the days that we exercise, do leisure activities or socialise, the time that we do it for has decreased. When we host or visit friends, for example, we do so for a shorter time: the average duration fell from two hours and 26 minutes in 1974 down to an hour and 16 minutes in 2014/15. People spend 55 minutes less on leisure activities away from home, such as going to the cinema or watching a sports match, and trips out for food or drinks shortened by an average of 21 minutes.

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Time spent exercising fell from two and a half hours to an hour and 26 minutes. People watched 16 minutes less TV, and volunteering halved over the four decades. Time spent reading remained stable at just over an hour a day.

[See also: Why your meetings are a waste of time]

Time confetti

Our free time is also more fragmented than ever. It’s increasingly contaminated by work and other obligations. “Free time” – according to the Norwegian social researcher Dagfinn Ås, writing in the late Seventies – is what’s left after “necessary time” (sleeping, eating, washing), “contracted time” (paid work) and “committed time” (time spent on life circumstances and choices, like childcare, home repairs, emptying the cat’s litter tray, etc).

Today those other categories are spilling into our free time. Look back to when you last had some time spare – how did you spend it?

Thinking back to last Saturday, a day off, each thing I did blended into another. Doing bits of housework in between writing I had to finish off for work; calling my mum while batch-cooking for the week ahead; stopping off during a cycle from an exercise class to have coffee with friends; catching up on work emails and co-ordinating diary dates with my boyfriend while on the bus to the pub.

This is a phenomenon Brigid Schulte, an American journalist and author of the 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, calls “time confetti”: the fragmentation of leisure time into small, unsatisfactory scraps.

The time diaries bear this out. On a weekend in 1974, for example, someone could expect to spend over five hours on leisure activities, broken up into four episodes across the day. Each of these episodes was, on average, over an hour long. By 2014/15, the number of leisure episodes had increased to seven, but only added up to four hours overall. This means the average length of a “leisure episode” has fallen from one hour 15 minutes to just 25 minutes.

“We need to help people take back control of their time if we are to reweave the social fabric and revitalise civil life.”

[See also: How the idea of a four-day week went mainstream]

Technology has us constantly multi-tasking. In 2000, only 1 per cent of people used a mobile device or other technology while watching TV, but 14 years later this had risen to 17 per cent. The proportion of people using technology when spending time with friends rose from 1 per cent to 13 per cent.

The novelist Ian McEwan recently lamented the loss of “those snatched moments, the 20 minutes when you’re waiting at the luggage carousel, [when] you used to have to do nothing except go into your thoughts – now we all take out our phone, we’ve been deprived of signal for a couple of hours on an airplane, and maybe we don’t have quite as rich an inner life.”

Time confetti makes us feel rushed. A 2019 study showed that “bounded” activities (those with something scheduled afterwards) feel shorter than “unbounded” activities (those without anything scheduled afterwards). Participants with a “bounded” hour to read estimated that they had done only 40 minutes of reading, while participants with an “unbounded” reading hour felt they had read for 49 minutes.

Data by Ben Walker

“Our days have become busier and the balance between different activities has been lost, making us feel overwhelmed,” says Jenevieve Treadwell, a senior researcher at Onward and author of its forthcoming report Burnt Out Britain. “Social connection is what makes a community stronger. We need to help people take back control of their time if we are to reweave the social fabric and revitalise civic life.”

My own experience is nothing compared to that of parents, night shifters or weekend workers. Mothers spend more time on childcare than fathers, and the type of time they spend with their children is less “fun”. Time diaries reveal childcare splits into two types: “practical”, like feeding or dressing, and “fun”, like playing or reading. On average, women are far more likely to provide practical care and men fun care, even at weekends.

Regardless of working pattern or wealth, women today spend more time than men on domestic chores and childcare. In the 1970s, women did more than twice as much housework as men. By 2000, women were doing only eighteen minutes less and men thirteen minutes more, and progress had stalled 14 years later.

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Although overall Britons are working less than they were in the 1970s, part-time and weekend work has grown significantly longer. Part-time shifts are, on average, an hour and a half longer per day than in 1974, and part-time workers were working 34 per cent more. Weekend work, which used to mean shorter shifts, was over an hour longer per weekend day, reaching over six hours per shift, while full-time weekday hours stayed steady.

Night and weekend workers’ social lives are particularly compromised. Their free time is out of sync with society at large. The share of nine-to-five-ers doing leisure activities peaks at 9.30pm on an average working day, for example, when 0 per cent of night workers are available.

Income affects how we spend our time. While richer women can avoid working on unsociable days, for example, low-income women work more on weekends.

The better off a man is, the less time he spends with his children: men with a low income spend two hours and 16 minutes a day with their children while wealthier men spend an hour and 53 minutes. It’s the opposite for women – the wealthier a woman is, the more time she spends with her children.

For all mothers, this can mean a “second shift”: more time spent on housework or childcare in addition to the working day. By 2014/15, they were working more than in the 1970s, but the time they spent on childcare had actually risen – by an average of 39 minutes a week.

[See also: The new politics of time]

“Switched off” politicians

Free time isn’t something British politicians like to talk about. It often seems like humans, to them, are little dots on a graph of productivity (or the latest hang-up, “economic inactivity”). There are never happy families, just “working families”.

It’s difficult to imagine a party leader in the UK basing an election campaign on a promise to “fix this country so we can have some barbecue, have some beer on the weekend”, as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now the president of Brazil, did last year. When our leaders are asked about their own down time, it’s only ever an escape: to “switch off” rather than switch on to what actually matters in life.

“We talk about all sorts of poverty, but never time poverty”

“We talk about all sorts of poverty, but never time poverty,” as a long-time Labour adviser puts it to me. “Perhaps because it sounds wonkish, but it is relatable, and central to people’s experience.”

The lack of “joy” in political rhetoric was also raised at a recent conference of influential campaigners and strategists held by the University College London Policy Lab and Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “Ordinary Hope” project, the aim of which is to better communicate the everyday benefits of economic and social justice to people’s lives.

In a 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that in a century, people would only be working 15 hours a week. Two years later the British philosopher Bertrand Russell dreamed of a leisure society of four-hour working days and enough time for the “happiness and joy of life”, in his work "In Praise of Idleness". Far from these interwar visions of a more leisurely society, the UK is becoming the opposite. In a country where 88 per cent of employees complained about burn-out between 2020 and 2022, perhaps our politicians should switch off, sit down with the public’s time diaries, and have a leisurely browse.

[See also: The secret history of how we measure time]

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