Leaky leisure time: Why do we have less time to relax than we used to?

Rest has been squeezed by blurred work-play boundaries and modern childcare pressures

One puzzle of modern life is that so many of us feel short of time, even though we work less than our forebears. In the 19th century, unions campaigned for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will”. In the 20th century, they succeeded in their push for shorter working hours.

But what happened to all that spare time we gained for doing “what we will”?

It’s not a perception problem: we really are stretched for time.

Data from the OECD shows that the average time people spend on leisure has decreased since the 1980s. In the 2010s, the average time spent on leisure shrank in eight out of 13 countries for which data is available. It dropped by 14 per cent in Korea, 11 per cent in Spain, 6 per cent in the Netherlands, 5 per cent in Hungary and 1 per cent in the US.


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 per cent of the median) has risen since 2000 in the 10 countries for which data is available.

One factor is that the decline in weekly working hours has levelled off. Average usual weekly hours have been stuck at about 40 for full-time employees in the OECD since the 1990s. But this alone can't explain the decline in leisure.

A study by the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, compares detailed time-use surveys completed by people in the UK in the 1970s and 2010s. The data shows the same squeeze on leisure time as in other countries, with women more pinched than men.

In the 1970s, working-age men and women each had about six hours of leisure per day, while today men have five hours and 23 minutes, and women four hours and 47 minutes.

Think of the children

Women are doing more paid work than in the 1970s, and men are doing more housework, but the biggest difference lies in how much time both groups devote to childcare (which is not classed as leisure in these surveys).

Women spend more than twice as much time on childcare than in the 1970s, even though they are also spending much more time in paid work. Men spend vastly more time on childcare now too. Which raises the question: who was looking after the children in the 1970s?

When I posed this question on Twitter, I was deluged with responses from people who said they mostly played outside without adult supervision, returning for meals and bedtime. One reminisced about playing on a building site; another about wandering around a party sipping the adults’ Bucks Fizz.

Changing attitudes among parents towards risk might well be a factor. It’s also possible that we think of “childcare” differently now.

The surveys ask people to record their “primary activity” throughout the day in 10-minute blocks. Perhaps in the 1970s, childcare was more often something that happened while you also did the housework or socialised, whereas now it feels more like an activity in itself.

Much ink has been spilled on the pros and cons of “helicopter parenting”. As a working mother, I think it’s also possible that parents who work simply miss their kids and want to focus on them when they get the chance.

There is a more fundamental shift, too. Although we have always multitasked to some extent, technology now makes it harder to divide our time between work and play. As Derek Thompson has written in the Atlantic, "leisure is getting leaky".

If I am watching TV while checking my work email on my phone, am I at leisure or at work? What about if I watch a funny video while sitting at my desk? And as the boundaries dissolve, does it make work feel better, or leisure feel worse?

Strive or enjoy?

For office workers, the pandemic blurred the boundaries more than ever before. But working from home also allowed people to reclaim the time they spent commuting: precious new slivers of time that many staff are reluctant to relinquish.

Trade unions in some countries are now resuming their push for shorter working hours. In the UK, the Trades Union Congress has called for a four-day week, while in Germany and Austria some innovative collective agreements have let workers choose reduced hours over higher pay. But the story of recent decades is that, even when we work less, we find it hard to rest.

People often reflect ruefully 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 and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread," he wrote. "For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy." – Copyright the Financial Times Limited 2021