The time of your life

Time use in London and the UK over the past 40 years

Few things in life are equal, but each day every one of us has 24 hours of time to use. How  time is best spent has been the subject of an active public debate in recent years, and this question has been thrown still further into the limelight by the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. But the current time use debate has been narrow, informed by a view that history has seen reductions in time spent in paid work, and that such reductions lead to increases in leisure time. From this, the argument has then been made that further and faster reductions in paid work are universally desirable.

This report brings new evidence to bear on the important question of how we spend our days. It seeks to broaden the time use debate and ground it in the lived experience and preferences of different groups today. We interrogate time use data from the 1970s and 2010s; analyse new data on attitudes to time use collected through our own survey; and explore public opinions on work-life balance gathered via three focus groups convened in early 2020. We build on our first report on time use (January 2020), which found that an unerring focus on falling average working hours leads to partial (and very male-oriented, since women’s hours have increased) conclusions. In this report we take a broader view, looking at how time is allocated to paid and unpaid work as well as leisure, and how this has changed over a 40-year period.

Altogether, this research challenges many of the assumptions underpinning the current debate. Crucially, we find that time use schedules are highly differentiated, not just by sex, but by income group too. It finds, for example, that for most households paid work has not fallen in aggregate and that leisure time has if anything reduced as people in practice prioritise childcare and sleep. Likewise, it shows that there are many different preferences for change, with the current debate’s focus on shorter hours of paid work reflecting the views more of higher-income households than those on lower incomes.