Guest Post: Dr. Lisa Whittaker on Young People & Leisure


No work doesn’t mean all play: how relevant is the concept of leisure for young people who are unemployed?

Following a recent talk at the Leisure Studies Association Annual Conference questioning the relevance of ‘leisure’ for young people who are unemployed, Geoff Nichols suggested that I read Sue Glyptis’ book Leisure and Unemployment (1989). Drawing on this book and others’ work, I will briefly chart the history of leisure and the ways in which it has been defined before describing a current study I have been involved in, (Re)Imagining Youth.  I argue that the distinction between work and leisure is increasingly redundant for many young people today as they try to navigate very precarious circumstances.

Leisure has been broadly defined in three ways: 1) as time left over when all other necessities have been completed, 2) as activity which includes relaxation, social and personal fulfilment and 3) as different things to different people, highlighting the importance of choice over how to spend your leisure/free time. Each of these definitions share the assumption that leisure and free time are experienced out with work. Once work has been done, leisure time can offer a chance to recharge your batteries and how people choose to do this is very subjective. The work-leisure dichotomy was invented in the mid-1800s. The expression “work–life balance” was first used in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s to describe the balance between an individual’s work and personal life. Money-rich, time-poor is an expression which arose in Britain at the end of the 20th century to describe groups of people who, whilst having a high disposable income through well-paid employment, have relatively little leisure time as a result.  In the 1980s Sue Glyptis discussed work and leisure “as a couplet” with “one deriving meaning from the other” (1989, p. 159).

Leisure - All work and no play

Historically, in the UK, changes in the nature of work have seen a growth of leisure and free time for many people. Roberts (1983) described the different elements of leisure; spare or free time, activity and experience and the changing meaning of leisure in a post-industrial society. In 1967, Jephcott published Time of One’s Own, a pioneering study of youth leisure in Scotland which captured the social and leisure habits of 15-19 year-olds at a unique point in social – and sociological – history. During this time leisure was becoming “less of a footnote to work and more important in its own right” (1967, p.2). But Jephcott also described leisure as “a notoriously imprecise concept” (1967, p. 32). (Re)Imagining Youth: A comparative study of youth leisure in Glasgow & Hong Kong analysed youth leisure in Glasgow and Hong Kong in historical and cross-cultural perspective, building on Jepcott’s work in Scotland in the 1960s and Hong Kong in the 1970s (Jephcott 1967, 1971). I was part of the research team in Glasgow and our data set includes interviews and focus groups with young people who were unemployed or working very irregular hours in insecure jobs.

Leisure and free time are commonly seen as a positive thing: a reward for a long day or week at work; a chance to recharge your batteries.  But young people are being hammered by austerity in Britain. Although the youth unemployment rate has fallen sharply from 20.9% a year ago to 17.8% (August 2014), the IPPR reports there are still 868,000 unemployed young people aged 16 to 24 and 247,000 of them have been looking for work for more than a year. Unemployment was often referred to as enforced leisure in the 1930s. If you are a young person struggling to find work and with limited money, free time can be a burden. What happens when one half of this “couplet” is missing, is leisure a redundant concept in the absence of work, do we need to reframe the way we think of leisure for this group of young people?

 “90% of my free time is job hunting”

Compared with the rest of our sample (young people in well paid, secure work or students) unemployed young people struggled to articulate how they define and spend their free time.  Many said that a lack of money prevented them from doing anything.  Our field site was in the East End of Glasgow, an area that has undergone much regeneration in recent years. Following the Commonwealth Games in 2014 there has been a wealth of new and upgraded sports facilities, including the Emirates Arena and Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, the new Glasgow National Hockey Centre and the refurbished Tollcross International Swimming Pool. However, these facilities are not free and unemployed young people felt priced-out and excluded from accessing such venues and activities due to the cost.

Leisure - Glasgow

It is not just money that employment provides. Marie Jahoda’s now-classic study of the social impact of unemployment on a small community, Marienthal, shows this (1971). Jahoda concluded that work provides important social benefits, including a sense of personal worth, connection with wider social objectives, and a time structure to their days and weeks.  Young people I spoke to described how being unemployed completely altered their sense of routine and meant that they had nothing to get up in the morning for. Others described their strategies to impose a structure on their days so they still felt in some way productive.

Int: do you ever feel like you can relax and enjoy your free time?

Young Person: Not really because you’re always trying to find work

There is a need today to ensure young people have opportunities to engage in well-paid, meaningful secure work but also, just as Glyptis stated in late 1980s, in enjoyable, affordable leisure opportunities.  Certainly the young people I spoke to did not have the freedom or resources to experience leisure and society tells them they have not earned and therefore do not deserve leisure time in the absence of paid work. Leisure is important in terms of quality of life and this applies equally to young people who are unemployed as it does to other sectors of society. Lack of resources, less disposable income and high cost of living limits choice and opportunities to take part in leisure activities, especially in the highly commercialised times we live in. This situation is compounded by a rise in ‘in-work poverty’ working poor and austerity cuts to local services.

Leisure studies and sociology of leisure are the academic disciplines concerned with the study and analysis of leisure. I believe that academics we need to reconsider and critique traditional notions of leisure taking into account the current context and changing nature of work, especially the impact that unemployment has on leisure but also the movement away from a 9am – 5pm working day and the high number of people who are underemployed. Policy-makers and leisure providers need to ensure that the structural forces which exclude some young people from the labour market do not also exclude them from participating in leisure activities.

Dr Lisa Whittaker, University of Glasgow & Glasgow Centre for Population Health – Lisa’s background is in research and youth work. Lisa’s research interests span various aspects of young peoples’ lives including employment, leisure, poverty and growing up in care. She is currently the Knowledge Exchange/Community Engagement Officer for the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Centre for Population Health and involved in a new Social Research Hub in Bridgeton, Glasgow. You can follow more of her work on the (Re)imagining Youth blog and on Twitter at @Lisawhittaker02

Categories: Politics, Youth Studies, Youth Unemployment

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