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Let’s free up our free time!

Late ! Always late ! » Is the modern worker, like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, in constant pursuit of time?

In any case, there is a global demand to slow down, because work and social life as a whole are subject to such a process of speeding up that many individuals feel that they no longer have time to do what they want. “, diagnoses Jean-Yves Boulin, a sociologist specializing in social times at the University of Paris Dauphine. This might seem paradoxical, because never in history have we worked so little and had so much free time, 5 hours and 11 minutes a day on average for the entire population over 15 years old, a third more than in ’74.

Daily activities of employees by gender in 2010, in hours and minutes

During the last decades, as women work more and more often, they have significantly reduced the time they devote to housework, from 4 hours and 12 minutes a day in 1985 to 3 hours and 3 minutes in 2010. This is due to advances in household equipment, the increasing use of marketable services (dry cleaning, home delivery of meals), but also a relaxation of standards (we settle for less clean apartments). Because, for their part, men, a little worried anyway, also reduced (a little) their participation.

NB: times listed are averages over the entire week, including weekends. To find the weeks duration, you must multiply them by 7.

This was shown by data from the latest INSEE time use survey. But it was true that it was carried out in 2010… One could say an eternity in terms of, in particular, the way in which digital technology has transformed work, disrupting rhythms, and sometimes erasing the boundaries between professional life and private life.

From this point of view, the first four-day work experience they look quite promising, according to Jean-Yves Boulin which still knits more for the organization of free time thought out throughout life. The researcher is currently conducting a survey within three companies that have had them for more than two years. Still not enough to get inexorable statistics, but interviews conducted with about fifty people indicate a significant effect on quality of life:

They all say they feel a beneficial effect on their health and fatigue levels. Most often, they use their day off – usually Friday, but sometimes also Wednesday for those who do not have children – do sports, take more care of their children or in some cases their parents, or even get involved in social activities with a non-governmental association… In any case, none of them took another job! »

Loosen the constraints of everyday life

The typical pattern of the 4-day work week is therefore less one in which we escape for a long weekend than one in which we take advantage of the freed-up time to relax from the constraints of everyday life. This seems to be what triggered the three cases studied by Jean-Yves Boulin, all of which, he notes, were the result of employer initiative:

We are far from the justifications based on the division of labor, which governed Robien’s laws and the establishment of 35. hours. This is true prosperity. The initial observation is that an employee who works 5 days full time doesn’t really have time to do anything else during the week, and uses his weekend to do whatever he doesn’t have. he could not do it between monday and friday. So he actually has very little time for himself. »

This alone time is sometimes used for pure leisure (cinema, museums, etc.), but it seems to be primarily used to relieve the weekend crowd, a privileged time for family and friends, by crossing off as many items as possible. constant list of obligations in life in society: shopping, medical examinations, hairdresser and other administrative formalities. This gives those who benefit from it a sense of greater control over time. »adds the researcher.

A similar effect, of late, was observed with the 35-hour week: comparing the schedules of those who switched to it with those of employees who remained on the 39-hour week, three researchers showed shift of certain activities from weekends to weekdays. At least this was the case for men who did more “discretionary” tasks (adaptable to time constraints) such as DIY or gardening between Monday and Friday, to free them up during the weekend.

Unequal in relation to freed time

Women, who are more assigned to routine tasks and therefore less flexible, such as meal preparation, did not make such a turnaround, bearing in mind a slightly lower mental load (less “multitasking” during the week), but especially devoting significantly more time to children, and over weekdays and weekends.

Inequalities between women and men remain a blind spot in time release projects. Because the ban on “harmonizing work and family” still rests mainly on the shoulders of the former: it is not for nothing that in 2022 more than one in four women worked part-time, compared to less than one in ten men!

Certainly, the time that women devote to household chores has decreased; but this is less due to human investment, which has barely progressed, than due to technical progress and relaxation of domestic standards. The accommodation is somewhat less clean and people eat prepared meals more often. Above all, this gain was partially offset by a significant increase in time devoted to children, which was also mainly spent by women.

Still very strong asymmetry, as research by sociologist Jeanne Ganault has shown with highly qualified employees who are highly autonomous in managing their working hours.

Although they have complete freedom to organize themselves as they wish, the researcher notes that this autonomy is used to reinforce limited time, men who overinvest in work, while women overinvest in household and parenting tasks, even when the latter burden them greatly, because they have internalized are the ban on finding a “balance” between family life, private life and professional life. In short, it’s not all about freeing up time, you also need to have time to free yourself!

Privilege of standard working days

And everything is more complicated at the bottom of the social scale, where atypical and/or fragmented schedules multiply, allowing only fragmented free time that is not in accordance with the dominant rhythms of social life.

Jean-Yves Boulin and Laurent Lesnard in particular showed that employees who work on Sundays suffer a significant loss of family and friendly sociability, because they cannot make up for the time they could have spent on a free working day with their loved ones if they did not work that day. These situations concerned 36% of employees in 2019including an increasing number of women and who for the time being mostly escape thinking about reducing working hours, based on standard working days.

Types of working week according to socio-professional categories in 2010, in %

In 2010, standard days with “regular hours” represented less than half of working days in France. Higher categories work longer, but according to standard working hours and with some flexibility. Conversely, the least qualified categories are more likely to have staggered or fragmented schedules (two appointments separated by more than three hours) and restrictions, situations that are particularly harmful to family life.

However, these days become a privilege, as the most qualified benefit the most. Despite extensive schedules, they derive more satisfaction from work and can afford shorter but more intensive free time by resorting to expensive services (cinema, theater, restaurant, babysitter, etc.), where the free time of unqualified employees, in 2010, was primarily occupied by watching television , although it is far from the most pleasant activity.

Already in 2018, Jean-Yves Boulin and Laurent Lesnard considered it possible this dystopian scenario:

“A society that would function according to the rhythm of the 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a “class of work and leisure” headed by extended working hours – which has become a sign of hypermodern distinction (overwork) – but relatively standard, and with dense and intensive free time, distributed throughout the year. This kind of society would be based on a “disintegrated class of employment and time”, largely insecure, facing great difficulty in articulating its social time as it is required to work at night and on Sundays, and with distributed, fragmented, unpredictable schedules.»

Limited as they are in scope, the four-day work week and the struggle to reduce working hours are valuable incentives to escape this nightmarish perspective.

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