In an oddly interesting way, the disruption of our social lives by Covid-19 pandemic-driven lockdowns and safety guidelines prompted a series of disquieting reflections on everything from the value of patience to a recovered nostalgia for a less hurried life.

The English-speaking, internet-connected middle class around the world found ways to adapt to the new normal. Confusing narratives emerged about how this pandemic-led epochal downtime could be used effectively. Some were driven to turn every single work-free minute into self-improvement projects. Others discovered the often-overlooked everydayness of “slow leisure”.

With Tiktok videos, balcony concerts, home workouts, baking lessons, home reorganisation and creative reconfigurations of older pastimes (jigsaw puzzles and family boardgames), the internet offered creative re-imaginings of free time.

What was missed in this narrative of indulgent busy-ness was the unequal nature of work and leisure. To begin with, social cleavages between parents and non-parents, and between genders were deepened in terms of access to discretionary time.

To understand the nature and level of people’s time squeeze, we look at the recently released nationally representative Time Use Study 2019 led by the National Sample Survey Organisation. Although the study doesn’t allow us to see how the pandemic disrupted, exacerbated and altered the daily rhythm of work and free time, it offers insights on standard constraints of time-use. More generally, we wonder how our reconfigured understanding of time holds for leisure futures after the pandemic?

The Time Use Study 2019 collected data on paid and unpaid labour (such as care work, household management, cleaning, doing laundry and food preparation) as well as discretionary activities (socialising, self-care). Leisure, or the residual category, was captured as time spent on cultivating hobbies, attending cultural or family events, entertainment and media use (watching television or using video devices). It also included non-work-related travel for religious or recreational purposes.

Notably, time-use statistics with their comprehensive information of daily activities are recognised by academics and policy practitioners as important tools through which gender inequality can be addressed in policy and planning. Put simply, time-use statistics are quantitative summaries of everyday life – how individuals allocate their time over a specified time period (typically 24 hours of a day or over seven days of a week) and how much time they spend on each of these activities.

Leisure Troubles

Indeed, past research has shown how the perceptions of women and men about free time differs in terms of the nature and duration of leisure-based activity. There are also conceptual quarrels in academia about what constitutes leisure. For example, is the western notion of leisure applicable globally? Is it understood purely in terms of freedom to pursue joyful activities in non-working time? Or is it guided by purpose and motivation? In contexts where the very definition of leisure is nebulous and often gets fused with domestic labour (e.g. watching television while taking care of an infant or cooking), it is not surprising that research from such societies show free-time as a harried, fragmented and simultaneous entity.

Following the International Classification of Activities for Time Use Statistics, developed by the United Nations Statistics Division, the Time Use Study 2019 was conducted using the 24-hour recall method by interviewing persons and recording activities performed in the selected time slots of 30 minutes each. The 24-hour recall involved survey investigators interviewing participants (6 years and above) to indicate the list of activities performed during the last 24 hours (or a total time of 1440 minutes). The survey also calculated activities that were performed simultaneously (i.e., multitasking). Multitasking is an unusually telling measure of household-level inequality since women are known to multitask significantly more than men.

Unsurprisingly, while a significantly higher percentage of men are involved in paid employment (57.3%) and have formal education (23.9%), women shouldered the bulk of the unpaid domestic work (81.2%), care work and production of goods for oneself (27.6%). However, contrary to the academic discourse about the “second shift”, (popularised by American sociologists Arlie Hoshchild and Anne Machung, who argued how working women were shouldering the equivalent of two jobs – paid labour and household chores combined), the study reveals no leisure gap between genders. Specifically, men spend 164 minutes per day on leisure while the equivalent statistic for women is 165 minutes.

How can we understand this perplexing evidence of an ostensible leisure equality in a context where gender struggles are real? First, when put together with the other activities of the day, it seems impossible for women to do 200 more minutes in unpaid work and at the same time have marginally more leisure time than men (both rural and urban). This points to how domestic or caregiving work and leisure practices are experienced simultaneously for women where it is impossible to disentangle unpaid work from discretionary time use.

The fact that women experience lower quality of leisure than men is well known, lending support to early feminist claims about women’s leisure being fragmented and less relaxing than men who tend to enjoy pure leisure, one that remains uncontaminated with unpaid work.

In fact, prior evidence from India has shown how discretionary, unobligated time for women is often fragmented and collective in nature. For example, sociologist Alaka Basu in her careful interrogation of leisure as a route to women’s economic emancipation notes how women’s free time is socially considered as a “secondary” activity (“leisure that is combined with non-leisure doings”).

Second, this surprising finding of women’s equal access and availability of leisure can also be interpreted as macro-level aggregate data hiding micro-level differences, say in age, education and household characteristics. For example, when we look at leisure by education categories, we see that women with higher educational qualifications have more leisure time compared to their less educated peers.

Gender differences are also heightened at lower levels of education. Women with less education (upper primary/middle school) also experience lower levels of leisure (149 minutes per day) than men (154 minutes per day) with a similar educational profile.

Third, it is perplexing why the Time Use Study 2019 neglects to collect information on household level amenities (such as access to piped water) and technology-aided household management equipment (such as the availability of a washing machine) since these are crucial in changing the anatomy of leisure for women (and men).

Indeed, prior research has shown that despite the contemporary urban lament of “running out of time”, both women and men in cities experience more intensive leisure involving higher amounts of effort and expenditure.

Finally, leisure follows an age gradient. Increasing age is often associated with greater commitments (to work and family). Hence, the feeling of time poverty changes across the life course. The Time Use Study showed the age cohort 15-29 years reporting more leisure time (162 minutes per day) than middle-aged adults (15-59 years old). The highest was for those 60 and above.

But gender differences persisted in later life too, with older men reporting higher amounts of leisure (258 minutes per day) than older women (235 minutes per day) reflecting the continuity of gender roles.

Meanwhile, rural men reported spending more time contributing to unpaid domestic work (98 minutes per day) and care-giving duties (77 minutes per day) than urban men. However, in both settings, women shouldered significantly higher burden of domestic chores than men.

Leisure Futures

Given that the link between leisure and overall physical and psychological wellbeing has been well-established, we wonder what this time squeeze holds for the future? Does this call for a serious reconfiguration of household dynamics (which continue to be dominated by traditional forms of gender specialisation) and workplace flexibility to ensure equitable access to free time?

If we move away from the traditional definitions of leisure understood primarily in the language of choice and freedom, we see leisure being trapped in existing power relations.

Perhaps, post-pandemic, where time can be both harried and emancipatory, the plea of leisure theorists that leisure should be viewed as a form of resistance holds promise for democratic futures. This would involve challenging and rejecting societal views about women’s (and men’s) expected roles and behaviours.

Can we, for example, be liberated from feelings of shame and guilt in doing nothing? Can we reinstate our right to unobligatory time to replenish our physical and emotional inventory after long months of collective trauma? More generally, can we accept the dull messiness of drudgery or the fatigue of overwork and treat ourselves with compassion?

We contend that re-orienting our focus on leisure can serve an important vehicle through which equitable futures can be productively imagined.

Ashwin Tripathi is a doctoral student at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. Her broad research interests include leisure studies, social gerontology, and time-use studies.

Tannistha Samanta is an Associate Professor with the Department of Sociology, FLAME University, Pune. Her research lies at the intersection of sociology of ageing and public health. She tweets @tannistha14.