To read the papers these days you would think the British do little more than work – labouring the longest hours in Europe, slaving for 12 hours a day, demanding the right to work at least 48 hours a week. Even in the City, job insecurity leads those earning huge bonuses to choose to save them, rather than spend them on fun and expensive luxuries. The enjoyable excesses of the Eighties are a thing of the past: we are now a serious race, preoccupied with pensions, keeping our jobs and holding onto any money we earn.
But in between these bouts of hard grind, the British are taking their leisure time ever more seriously, as shown by The Million Plus Panel, which holds data on most leisure activities. Of course, we all tune in to the TV and radio; but we still seem to have lots of time to enjoy a massive range of hobbies and sports.
From a list of 30 leisure activities, there are five things people enjoy doing most regularly. And, with the exception of going to the pub, they seem to be home-based and domestic, reflecting the Nineties’ atmosphere.
Pundits once thought that TV would kill reading. Yet reading books is still a top-rating leisure activity for well over half the population. While reading appeals as much to the young as to the elderly, this is not the case for other hobbies. Two-thirds of under-35s cite going to the pub as a major leisure activity (even if it is only to watch the Premier League on Sky Sports) compared with only one in five pensioners, while two-thirds of pensioners spend a large part of their time gardening.
Cookery, too, has now become a pleasure rather than a task: and this is particularly marked among younger consumers. This no doubt results from the growing ease of cooking: the growth of microwaves, dishwashers and convenience foods, ranging from prepared salads from Tesco to Marks & Spencer chilled gourmet meals.
Do-it-yourself is a popular pastime for a third of all adults, with little variation by age. Looking after the home is now second nature to many people – and for one in three it’s an enjoyable pastime. Despite this, more people seem pleased to get away from home – about 80 per cent of adults take at least one holiday away from home each year. But the holidaying habits of the affluent are very different from those of the mass-market.
More than 50 per cent of adults plan to spend over 500 on summer holidays (and more than 20 per cent plan to spend over 1,000).
The most popular type of holiday nowadays is self catering – renting an apartment or chalet, camping or caravanning. These appeal across all income groups: just over a third have taken a holiday of this type recently. Renting self-catering cottages, gtes or villas is, however, skewed to the upper income groups, while coach tours tend towards the lower end of the mass market. But what of skiing, cruises and safaris?
Among the affluent, those with family incomes over 40,000, one in five go skiing, over one in ten have been on a cruise and close to one in ten have, at some time, gone on safari. Skiing and safaris seem to be the province of the affluent, but cruises are also taken by close to one in ten of the lower income sectors. Perhaps cruising and going on coach tours have something in common.
Minority sports such as golf and fishing attract growing numbers of participants. Golf and fishing are still primarily male preserves: one in five men enjoy golf, and over one in ten enjoy fishing, while women golfers and anglers are relatively rare. Keep fit is a female preserve, and is particularly geared towards young women. Riding attracts more women than men, though this is more riding for fun than chasing foxes. Cycling, tennis and skiing appeal to both sexes more or less equally. Over a third of men and women enjoy swimming, with women being particularly keen.
Britain may be working hard but it is also enjoying itself. Despite spending an average of well over three-and-a-half hours daily watching TV, Britain is not yet a race of couch potatoes. Will this continue in the digital TV age? The answer is yes. The arrival of satellite TV has not led to a major growth in TV viewing – just to more selectivity. No doubt digital TV will increase that selectivity.