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Leisure Studies, 2015

Vol. 34, No. 2, 131–149,

Social class and leisure during recent recessions in Britain

Ken Robertsa,b*
Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Chester, Chester CH1 4BJ, UK;
Sociology, University of Liverpool, Eleanor Rathbone Building, Bedford Street South,
Liverpool L69 7ZA, UK
(Received 16 June 2013; final version received 7 October 2013)

This paper assembles time series data on leisure participation rates and
expenditure to assess the impact of recessions in the UK during and since the
1980s, and the widening of social class disparities in income since then. It shows
that in both cases there have been clear impacts on leisure spending, but to a
lesser and variable extent on participation in leisure activities. The conclusions
that are drawn highlight weaknesses in the data currently available to leisure
scholars, specifically the limited time series and the absence of a limited number
of key indicators of leisure use. An important feature of leisure itself is also
highlighted: specifically the stability of participation rates over extended periods
of time. The failure of leisure scholars to address this feature of their subject
matter is attributed to its invisibility before time series are constructed and
Keywords: expenditure; leisure; recessions; social class; time series; time use;

Let us start with a well-grounded expectation or hypothesis; namely, the recession
that followed the 2008–2009 banking crisis has widened and deepened class
differences in leisure. The grounding is in the well-documented state of knowledge.
All the relevant research has found that the higher socio-economic strata have the
higher rates of participation in, and the higher levels of spending on, most kinds of
leisure, the main exception being television viewing. In all recessions the lower
socio-economic strata have been the most vulnerable. This includes the post-2008
recession, despite it beginning in financial services with television shots of laid-off
employees leaving investment banks with their belongings packed into cardboard
boxes. Some bankers lost their jobs and were stripped of knighthoods, but their
fallback was not Job Seekers Allowance. During the recession of the 1980s in
Britain, there were several studies of the leisure of the unemployed (see e.g. Glyptis,
1989; Kay, 1987; Roberts, Brodie, & Dench, 1987; Stokes, 1983). Some traced
changes from before to after redundancies. Others had a cross-sectional design and
compared employed and unemployed groups in the same areas and from the same
social class backgrounds. There were always some exceptions. There were individu-
als who felt that their lives had been improved since the burden, the daily work, was


© 2013 Taylor & Francis

132 K. Roberts

lifted (e.g. Walter, 1985). Short spells out-of-work were sometimes welcomed by
young people as relief from the tedium of employment (Roberts, Noble, & Duggan,
1982). However, long-term involuntary unemployment was invariably found to be
bad for virtually everything that people valued – their incomes, health, family lives
and leisure. Since the lower socio-economic strata have once again been the most
vulnerable to these injuries, the expectation of widening class inequalities in leisure
during the current recession must be considered well-grounded rather than pure
However, there have been differences (at least in the UK) between the post-2008
and previous recessions. During the most recent recession, there has been a relative
dearth of studies of the unemployed’s leisure. Such studies may still be in process
and will be published in the near future. However, an equally plausible explanation
for their absence is that the effects of unemployment are so firmly established that
further corroboration seems unnecessary. Another reason for the absence of such
studies could be that the post-2008 recession has proved less dramatic than its
predecessors. The post-2008 unemployment rate in Britain has never been more than
half the level reached in the 1980s. Also, the effects of the post-2008 recession have
been more dispersed geographically. The 1980s recession is recalled for the closure
of huge shipyards, steel and car assembly plants, and coalfields which had dominated
their local labour markets. The big name casualties since 2008 have been banks and
retailers with workforces spread across many regions, and local government payrolls
from which the losses have been in all areas. A further difference has been that in the
1980s most local authorities introduced special programmes or sessions for the
unemployed in their sports, community and cultural facilities. These programmes
were built upon existing efforts to reach under-represented groups. There have been
few such initiatives since 2008. Government spending, especially by local authorities,
has been cutback heavily. This has resulted in closures or reduced opening hours in
libraries, cultural and sport facilities. This feature of the post-2008 context could be
expected to amplify the damage to the leisure of the most vulnerable.
The following review of relevant evidence does not reject the grounded expecta-
tion with which this enquiry is commencing. Rather, it introduces nuances which, as
we shall see, highlight certain features of the character of leisure itself that deserve
greater attention than they have received up to now. In this and other ways the paper
raises questions for the agenda of leisure studies.
We proceed by discussing the paper’s two key terms – leisure and social class.
The paper then uses quantitative evidence on leisure participation rates and house-
hold spending to assess the impact of the post-2008 and previous recessions. We
then see that the macro-picture conceals differences between socio-demographic
groups – specifically life stage groups and social classes – and differences between
the latter are discussed in detail. Conclusions are then drawn about the overall
impact on leisure of the post-2008 recession, current limitations of the evidence that
is at our disposal, and implications for the agenda of leisure studies.

Key terms
This paper uses two indicators to trace trends over time and differences in the leisure
of various socio-demographic groups. The indicators are participation rates in
selected (leisure) activities, and spending on selected (leisure) goods and services.
Even in combination, these do not portray the whole of leisure or all the details of
Leisure Studies 133

the types of leisure that are featured. This would require measurements of time
available and its uses, money available and its uses, where the time and money were
spent, the activities that were practised, with whom, and the experiences of those
involved. Details of all these dimensions of leisure may be captured in qualitative
research, necessarily small-scale, but we do not have, and we are unlikely ever to be
able to join-up thousands of small-scale studies so as to build a macro-picture.
Macro-trends and differences between socio-demographic groups can only be
measured quantitatively, and at present we lack both comprehensive time series
macro-data on most dimensions of leisure or even a set of key indicators. This paper
makes use of the evidence that is available which tells us a lot, but its limitations
are not just acknowledged again but discussed in the concluding section where it is
argued that leisure research needs to seek rapid progress in its statistical resources
rather than acquiesce with the current limitations of the evidence.
Social class is another multi-dimensional concept which is employed throughout
this paper, but here the relevant researchers have been able to agree on key indica-
tors. Class is a contested concept. It is defined in different ways by functionalists,
Marxists and Weberians, but they nearly all agree that occupation is the best single
indicator of a person’s or household’s class position, and that classes are most
basically aggregates of actors who occupy similar positions in their society’s systems
of economic production and distribution. For most leisure scholars, and indeed for
most sociologists, class is simply a ready-made variable that they may use to describe
or categorise the subjects in their enquiries, but the variable is a social construct, and
the constructors are sociologists and other experts on employment who are perpetu-
ally seeking the best way of grouping occupations according to their economic
positions. The main division of opinion has been, and remains, between those who
argue that the best arrangement (which corresponds most closely with social reality)
is to distribute occupations along a continuous scale, vs. as always favoured by most
European sociologists, to identify clusters of occupations. Sociologists who favour
the latter approach usually argue that classes are formed and can be identified
through their relationships with one another – employing and being employed,
managing and being managed, conceiving and executing work tasks, for example.
Three of the best known and most widely used class schemes in Britain are
presented from the left in Figure 1. On the extreme left is the scheme that was
devised by Registrar General’s office for use in the census of 1911. The division
between classes 3a and 3b was introduced in 1921. This scheme was said to rank
groups of occupations according to their social standing, though in 1980 it was
decided (by government diktat) that the classes represented skill levels. This is a
view of the occupational structure that all recent governments in Britain have been
keen to encourage. However, sociologists insist that skill is always a claim which
can be contested rather than a simple objective fact, and none of the sociological
class schemes use measurements of skill to define class boundaries or to place
occupations. The next scheme in Figure 1 is that used by the market research
industry (which also undertakes most political opinion surveys). It claims to group
households according to their typical spending levels and patterns. The third scheme
(NS-SEC) replaced the Registrar General’s social classes as the UK government’s
official class scheme in 1998. It is a version of the class scheme devised by John
Goldthorpe which was first used in his study of social mobility in Britain in 1972
(see Goldthorpe, Llewellyn, & Payne, 1987). This scheme purports to group
occupations according to their typical work and market situations. Those outside the
134 K. Roberts

Social class schemes

Registrar General’s Market research NS-SEC Great British
Social Classes Class Survey
1.Higher management A. Higher 1. Higher management 1. Elite
and professional management and and professional
2. Lower management B. Lower management 2. Lower management 2. Established
and professional and professional and professional middle class
3a. Other non-manual C1. Other non-manual 3. Intermediate office, 3. Technical
sales, laboratory middle class
4. Self-employed
3b. Skilled manual C2 Skilled manual 5. Skilled, technicians, 4. New affluent
supervisors workers
4. semi-skilled D. Other manual 6. Semi-routine 5. Traditional
working class
5. Unskilled 7. Routine 6. Emergent
service workers
E. Never worked, 8. Never worked, 7. Precariat
long-term unemployed long-term unemployed

Figure 1. Social class schemes.

academic communities that are involved in class scale and scheme construction
usually find that all the instruments look very similar. This is despite their different
bases – social standing, attributed skill levels, spending levels and patterns, market
and work situations. Which indicators of class are used turns out to make little
difference because all the indicators are closely associated with one another.
The scheme constructed from the Great British Class Survey of 2011/2012,
which achieved over 161,400 online responses, complemented by a nationally
representative sample of 1026 (Savage et al., 2013), used indicators of economic
capital, social capital and cultural capital (tastes in highbrow and ‘emergent’ cultural
genres), and produced groups to which the investigators attached their own labels,
but if they had chosen more familiar labels – upper middle, middle, lower middle
and so on – their scheme would closely resemble all its predecessors. The
construction of this new class scheme began as an experiment. The social research
community has tended to dismiss online surveys on account of their extremely low
response rates and therefore potentially highly unrepresentative results. The Great
British Class Survey has shown that given an appropriate platform and topic (the
BBC website and class in this case) a very high total response can be achieved which
includes usable numbers of cases within categories (university vice-chancellors e.g.)
that are normally too small to analyse separately in conventional surveys. A
limitation of the online method is that it is possible to ask only straight forward, fully
structured questions. Follow-up probing is impossible. This makes it impossible to
gather sufficient detail about occupations to place them in any of the occupation-
based class schemes. So as an alternative, the Great British Class Survey used a
combination of economic capital, social capital and cultural tastes. Yet, as indicated
earlier, with more conventional labels the classes identified would have borne a close
resemblance to those in existing class schemes. A limitation of the new scheme is
that it can tell us nothing about trends over time because it was not constructed and
first used before 2012. Also, its value to leisure researchers is compromised by the
Leisure Studies 135

use of cultural tastes in the construction of the classes. This diminishes its value for
leisure research, since elements of leisure are within the classes that are identified,
and relationships with separate measurements of leisure behaviour and interests are
likely to be spurious. The labels used in reporting the Great British Class Survey
highlight noteworthy features of classes today, especially the bottom two groups, the
‘emergent service workers’ and the ‘precariat’, but as we shall see, the relevant
changes at the base of the class structure become evident using long-established class
Experts must follow the Great British Class Survey and continue to debate which
class scheme should be preferred, and how they all might be improved, because
everyone who is involved agrees that the class structure can change. There can be
changes in the sizes and internal character of specific classes, and changes in the
boundaries between the main class groupings. This is in addition to the routine need
to insert new occupations into the class schemes. Today, just as in 1911, the
challenge is how best to group thousands of occupations into a more limited number
of classes. As further explained below, leisure scholars face a similar challenge
which has yet to be addressed successfully.

Since 2005–2006, participation in certain leisure activities, primarily those
benefitting from state funding, has been monitored annually in the Taking Part
Survey and the Active People Survey. Table 1 summarises the findings to date.
This table shows that sport participation has been stable since 2005–2006 with
just over half the adult population (age 16 and over) taking part at least once in the
four weeks preceding their interviews. The Active People Survey examines sport
participation in greater detail and uses several different thresholds to assess
participation. The results for ‘at least four 30 min sessions of at least moderate

Table 1. Taking Part Surveys, adults, in %.

2005/ 2006/ 2007/ 2008/ 2009/ 2010/ 2011/
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Last 4 weeks
Active in sport 54 54 54 53 53 53 55
(Active People Survey) at least four 34 36 36 36 35 35 –
30 min sessions of moderate
Last year
Engaged with the arts 76 76 77 76 76 76 78
Visited museum or gallery 42 42 44 43 46 46 49
Visited heritage site 70 69 71 69 70 71 74
Visited public library 48 46 45 41 39 40 39
Volunteered 24 24 24 25 – 24 23
Donated money – – – – – 88 90
Digital participation: visited website (last year)
Museum or gallery 16 17 18 19 – 25 26
Library 10 10 10 11 – 16 16
Heritage 18 19 21 21 – 27 29
Theatre or concert 31 32 35 35 – 43 42
Sport 26 28 31 – 36 38 –
136 K. Roberts

intensity’ are selected for Table 1. This, and all other time series that could be drawn
from the Active People Surveys, corroborates the Taking Part results: stability since
2005–2006. Engagement with the arts (theatre, music concerts and opera, ballet) has
also been stable. There has been a modest upward trend in visits to museums and
galleries. Visits to heritage sites have been stable unless the rise in 2011–2012
proves to be the start of an upward trend rather than a blip. Visits to libraries have
declined, but this decline began before any cutbacks in state funding for this service.
The trend probably indicates a switch from borrowing to purchasing printed and
e-books rather than a decline in reading. It is impossible to detect any recession
effect in Table 1: the relevant changes would have, but none of the changes have
actually, commenced only after 2008. Prime Minister Cameron’s big idea, the Big
Society, has also made zero impact. There has been no post-2010 increase either in
the proportion of the population that volunteers or donates money. Digital participa-
tion has risen throughout the period covered in Table 1. This applies to visits to
websites associated with all the leisure activities that are listed. However, this has
neither led to more, nor been at the expense of, corporeal participation. The partici-
pation rates in Table 1 appear to have been totally unresponsive to changes in
economic conditions as well as to government policies and interventions, including
cutbacks in state funding for the relevant services. Throughout the period covered
and in the activities examined in Table 1, the adult population appears to have
maintained ongoing leisure practices and trends. The ability of leisure to act as a
source of continuity in people’s lives amid wider changes was noted 30 years ago,
and rings just as true today at least for the leisure activities in Table 1 (Joint Sports
Council, Social Science Research Council Executive Panel on Leisure and Recrea-
tion Research, 1985). Of course, it is possible that if other leisure activities were
considered, or if the recession continues and the time series are extended, then
recession effects will become evident. We must wait to see, but in the meantime we
can re-examine what happened to leisure during earlier recessions, specifically those
in the UK in the mid-1980s and early-1990s.
Between 1977 and 2002 the General Household Survey (GHS) occasionally
included a battery of questions on participation in sport and certain other leisure
activities. At that time the main interest of the relevant government agency, the
Sports Council (the state wholly funded the GHS), was in sport participation about
which numerous questions were asked. Other leisure activities were included in the
surveys for comparison.
The unemployment rates for each of the years when the battery of leisure
questions was included in the GHS are on the top line in Table 2. These are the rates
measured using the claimant count, which was the government’s preferred indicator
of the level of unemployment until 1997, since when a measurement based on the
Labour Force Survey has been the officially preferred indicator. There were no
regular Labour Force Surveys in the UK until 1992, so the claimant count is used
throughout the time series in Table 2. This shows that there was a peak in the
unemployment rate between 1983 and 1987 (10.5% in 1986), followed by a decline
to 5.5% in 1990, then a rise to 9.7% in 1993, after which the economy began the
‘long boom’ which lasted until 2008.
The data on leisure participation show that the proportion of the adult population
taking part in sport in the previous four weeks rose consistently and gradually from
1977 until 1993, then stabilised, and then declined from 46 to 43% between 1996
and 2002. Even today, this drop remains unexplained. The date of the start of the
Leisure Studies 137

Table 2. Trends in unemployment and participation in selected leisure activities, adults, in %.

1977 1980 1983 1986 1987 1990 1993 1996 2002
Unemployment rate, 4.2 4.8 9.9 10.5 9.4 5.5 9.7 7.0 3.1
claimant count
Participation in last 4 weeks
Visiting/entertaining friends/ 91 91 91 94 95 96 96 96 –
Reading books 54 57 56 59 60 62 65 65 66
Gardening 42 43 44 43 46 48 48 48 –
DIY 35 37 36 39 43 43 42 42 –
Dressmaking/needlework/ 29 28 27 27 27 23 22 22 –
At least one ‘sport’ activity 33 36 38 41 45 46 47 46 43
Sources: Fox and Richards (2004), Gratton and Tice (1994), Roberts (2011).

rise in sport participation (probably long before 1977) is unknown, but the favoured
explanation is improved provisions, especially the new indoor sport and leisure
centres that were opened from the 1960s onwards. The other forms of leisure in
Table 2 all show modest but sustained increases throughout the GHS time series
except dressmaking and similar crafts which declined steadily in popularity. The
point of relevance here is that none of the participation rates display any response to
the peaks and troughs in levels of unemployment.
Why has this not been observed and commented upon until now? It has been
necessary to wait for all the time series – from 1977–2002, then from 2005–2006
onwards – to become available for the long-term picture to become visible. We can
now see, with the leisure activities for which data have been presented, that people
have displayed an impressive ability to maintain constant uses of leisure despite
fluctuations in economic conditions, and despite government goading to take-up
some and to desist from other activities. Some observers will be disappointed, but
others will take comfort from the public’s apparent indifference to politicians’ efforts
to shape their uses of leisure.
The trouble with the evidence encountered so far is that the idea of leisure
remaining unscathed through recession after recession lacks plausibility. It is incon-
sistent with the findings from close-up studies of sections of the unemployed that
were conducted in the 1980s and referred to earlier. Moreover, household incomes
fall during recessions. Households must cutback on their spending unless they
borrow more, and from 2008 until 2012, households in Britain were repaying debts
rather than increasing their borrowing. Leisure spending is more discretionary, less
essential, than spending on most other items. There must surely be leisure effects.
Table 3 solves this puzzle with data on trends in spending since the outset of the
recession that was triggered by the 2008 banking crisis. It uses the Food and
Expenditure Surveys to compare households’ spending in 2011 with 2007 levels.
The overall recession effect had been a decline of 3% in household spending.
Bucking this trend, spending on fuel and power rose by 13% in real terms, but
households cutback on nearly all other items. Motoring and travel costs were
reduced despite rising fuel prices and fares. There was all-round trimming, but the
largest savings in Table 3 are on household goods and leisure goods which dipped
to 80 and 79% of their 2007 levels, respectively. The truly startling figure in Table 3
is the slight increase in spending on leisure services. This suggests, for example, that
138 K. Roberts

Table 3. Household spending in 2011 as % of spending in 2007 at 2011 prices.

Housing 92
Fuel and power 113
Food and non-alcoholic drinks 98
Alcohol 88
Tobacco 90
Clothing and footwear 87
Household goods 80
Household services 94
Personal goods and services 92
Motoring 96
Fares and other travel 94
Leisure goods 79
Leisure services 101
Total disposable income 97
Source: Food and Expenditure Surveys.

households have been likely to delay replacing television sets but have maintained
or increased their spending on licence fees and subscriptions. Sports players may
have made their equipment last longer while maintaining spending on memberships
and sessions. People may drive as many miles per year but run their vehicles for
more years than they would have done before the recession. These are examples of
how people can reduce their leisure spending while maintaining levels of leisure
activity. If asked, they will probably experience and report ‘cutbacks’ and new
deprivations which are not evident in crude participation rates.
Table 4 presents a longer time series beginning in 1995–1996 for typical
household spending on leisure and leisure-related items. What is most interesting for
us is that ‘fares’ is the sole item where a decline in spending can be claimed
unequivocally as a recession effect, dating from 2008. Spending on and consump-
tion of alcohol began to decline at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Spending on tobacco was in decline throughout the period covered in Table 4.
Households began to cut the costs of their motoring and spending on leisure goods
from 2003–2004 (the spread of file sharing and free downloading contributed to this
dip). The recession may be a reason for the decline in spending on these items
continuing since 2008, but the recession did not spark the trends. To some extent,
the recession appears to have led to households spending even less on items on
which they were already reducing their spending before 2008.
Market research adds much fine detail to the overall picture (see BBC News,
2011; Mintel, 2010; White Hutchinson, 2010; During the
recession, people have been going out less frequently and spending less per
occasion. Public houses and casinos have suffered, but cinema audiences have held
up and online gambling has boomed. The recession sent international passenger
numbers tumbling back to the 2004 level, but domestic resorts and many attractions
have recorded increases in visitor numbers. People have been staying in more and
watching more television. In 2005, average viewing hours by UK adults varied
between 22 and 30 per week depending on the time of the year. By 2011–2013, the
range was 24 to 34 h ( Of course, television itself has changed.
There are larger, flat screens with high definition pictures, and a variety of catch-up
options available on domestic sets and online to a PC, iPad or Tablet. People have
also been spending more time ‘on the web’.
Table 4. Average weekly spending by households (in £, 2011 prices).
1995–1996 1996–1997 1997–1998 1998–1999 1999–2000 2000–2001 2001–2002
Alcoholic drink 19.20 20.10 21.00 20.10 21.60 20.60 19.30
Tobacco 9.20 9.50 9.30 8.40 8.50 8.30 7.40
Motoring 59.90 64/50 70/00 74.30 74.30 75.60 78.30
Fares and other travel costs 10.40 11.80 12.80 11.90 13.00 13.00 12.60
Leisure goods 22.60 24.30 25.70 25.60 26.20 27.10 26.60
Leisure services 51.30 53.50 58.50 60.20 62.10 69.50 70.20
2002–2003 2003–2004 2004–2005 2005–2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Alcoholic drink 19.60 19.00 18.50 18.00 16.70 14.70 15.40 15.20 14.70
Tobacco 7.20 7.00 6.20 5.50 5.20 5.00 4.80 4.90 4.70
Motoring 81.70 80.40 78.30 77.70 70.60 69.60 66.10 66.70 68.00
Fares and other travel costs 12.90 12.40 11.80 13.50 12.40 15.60 12.20 14.40 11.70
Leisure goods 27.10 27.60 26.80 23.70 22.90 20.60 20.30 19.90 18.00
Leisure services 71.00 70.90 74.50 76.70 70.20 72.10 69.80 66.10 71.10
Source: Food and Expenditure Surveys.
Leisure Studies
140 K. Roberts

Life stage groups

Interestingly, the decline in going out and cutbacks in leisure spending more
generally have been mainly among child-rearing families. Young and older age
groups have not been part of these trends.
The proportion of the population in older, post-retirement age groups is currently
rising which, all other things remaining equal, should reduce overall levels of leisure
activity and spending since, up to now and on average, older people have spent less
on leisure and participated in fewer out-of-home leisure activities than those of
working age. However, the cohorts who are currently retiring are the baby boomer
cohorts. They are retiring in better health and with more wealth than any of their
predecessors. Some have ‘defined benefits’ occupational pensions, typically offering
two-thirds of final salary, inflation proofed, after 40 years of service and contribu-
tions. Few of today’s young workers will be able to retire on similar pensions. The
relevant baby boomers do not need to cutback on their leisure spending and they
will be alive and active for many more decades. The retired who rely partly on
interest from savings, and those who have purchased annuities recently, will have
been disappointed by the low interest rates that have been maintained throughout
the recession, and therefore the reduced incomes that investing lump sums will
secure. Even so, the number of Woopies (well-off older people) is destined to grow
until the mid-twenty-first century, and the chances are that they will maintain,
because they are able to maintain, the levels of consumption to which they have
become accustomed (see Higgs et al., 2009). Some may equitise their dwellings if
necessary in order to fund their cruises and other outings. This is especially likely if
they fear their assets being swallowed by care and health costs during their final
years. Older people who rely entirely on state pensions have been guaranteed cost
of living increases. All political parties are aware of the weight of the ‘grey vote’ so
seniors are unlikely victims of cutbacks in state budgets.
Long before any of the time series in this paper commenced, young people
began staying for longer in education, and since the 1980s they have been taking
even longer to find jobs in which they are able and willing to settle long term, and
which pay salaries that enable them to live independently. This trend is not the sole
cause of, but it is associated with upward movements in typical ages of first births,
marriages, and new family and household formation. During the twenty-first century,
young adults have been staying longer in their parents’ homes. If and when they
leave they are more likely to rent than to buy. In either case, they are likely to rely
on significant support from ‘the bank of mum and dad’ to establish themselves in
independent accommodation. The typical age of a first-time house buyer without
significant financial support from his or her family is now late-30s (Clapham,
Buckley, Mackie, Orford, & Stafford, 2010). An outcome has been an extension of
youth or, some prefer to say, the creation of a new young adult or emergent
adulthood life stage (see Arnett, 2005). Members of this life stage group have not
reduced their going out or leisure spending during the current recession. Their
incomes are from full-time and part-time jobs, state grants and other forms of
welfare, parents and debt, and the latter has become especially significant for higher
education students and graduates.
To summarise so far, post-2008 cutbacks in leisure spending and going out, such
as have occurred, have been mainly by child-rearing families, and the general
tendencies when cutbacks have been made has been to reduce spending on leisure
Leisure Studies 141

goods rather than leisure services, thereby maintaining levels of leisure activity, and
otherwise to do things less frequently or more cheaply rather than to lapse

Social class
We have just encountered one example (life stage groups) of how the ‘big picture’
can conceal differences between socio-demographic groups. Average levels of
leisure activity and spending are always outcomes of some groups doing and
spending more than the average, while others do and spend less. Constant averages
throughout changing times are not just compatible with, but explicable in terms of
widening class inequalities, and there are reasons to suspect that during and between
recent recessions in Britain the ‘big picture’ has been a product of advantaged
classes being able to do and spend more, while the disadvantaged have been forced
to cutback. This is a likely outcome of widening class-related income inequalities.
A merit of any class scheme that has been in use for an extended period of time
is that it can chart historical changes. These may be in the proportions of the work-
force in different classes, the characteristics of the occupations within classes, and
the location of major class divisions. Until the 1980s it was uncontroversial to treat
the skilled manual and lower groups in the Registrar General’s class scheme, and
their equivalents in alternative schemes (see Figure 1), as a unitary working class
within which there were different layers. Since then it has become more difficult to
justify this practice. This is because the unemployment that rose in the 1980s never
disappeared entirely, especially from the places that were most severely affected by
de-industrialisation. How to address social exclusion was a high-profile public issue
throughout the 1990s. The New Labour government entered office in 1997 prepared
to create a series of New Deals, first for unemployed 18–25 year olds and then for
additional groups. The post-2008 recession has exacerbated the situation in these
sections of the workforce. In 2012, the claimant count was roughly 1.5 million.
Unemployment as measured in the Labour Force Survey was around 2.5 million,
but roughly the same number of respondents were not working, said that they
wanted to work, but were not counted officially as unemployed. Then there were
around a million part-time employees who said that they wanted longer hours. To
these can be added the working poor – those kept out of poverty only by in-work
welfare benefits (working tax credits and housing benefit) or otherwise paid less than
a living wage (see Aldridge, Kenway, MacInnes, & Parekh, 2012; Commission on
Living Standards, 2012). Together this ‘precariat’ (Standing, 2011) amounts to
almost a third of the labour force. Any ‘squeezed middle’ is situated above a
substantial ‘squashed bottom’. It has become difficult to continue treating those at
the ‘bottom end’ as part of the same working class as formally trained and skilled
and other workers who occupy the much better paid, more secure jobs that exist in
oil refineries, construction, car assembly plants, car repairs, television and computer
manufacturing and repairs, public transport and the public sector more generally
where employees are typically protected by trade union negotiated terms
and conditions. A new aristocracy of labour and another new class of labouring and
workless poor are being re-created. Leisure scholars need to take account of the
changing locations of the main class divisions, and the changing character of the
classes within each of the boundaries, when investigating links between leisure and
142 K. Roberts

The practice of treating all non-manual groups as part of a single middle class
was abandoned in sociology decades ahead of the unity of the working class becom-
ing suspect. Until the mid-twentieth century all non-manuals could be treated as part
of a single middle class, since future top managers and professionals typically
started their working lives in ‘the office’ or even on the ‘factory floor’, sometimes
serving formal apprenticeships. Before the Second World War, less than 3% of
young people in Britain went to university. There was a difference between the treat-
ment and prospects of young male and female non-manuals, but it was realistic for
males to aim high if they were prepared to pursue vocational qualifications through
the ‘alternative route’ offered in further education. After the Second World War,
direct recruitment into trainee management and professional positions became
increasingly common. This required superior educational qualifications and
eventually higher education. A consequence was that male and female office
workers faced a promotion blockage – the graduate barrier – and their occupations
became distinctly ‘intermediate’. Henceforth, the middle class proper, often
described as a ‘service class’ in sociology, comprised just professional employees
and managers, with the lower grades treated as entry points from which ascent to
the top was possible.
Currently there are indications that the non-manual grades are undergoing a
further process of reclassification. This is largely a consequence of widening income
inequalities. Since the 1980s, real earnings have been stagnating at the bottom end
of the occupational structure, and this stagnation has subsequently spread into the
‘squeezed middle’ (National Equality Panel, 2010). Meanwhile, for the last 30 years,
the highest paid occupational groups have been benefitting from the largest annual
percentage increases in their earnings. The outcome has been a much wider gap
between not just median but also upper middle and top salaries. Table 5 gives the
pre- and post-tax incomes of UK taxpayers in selected percentiles in 1999–2000 and
2010–2011. In 2010–2011, the income of the lowest income taxpayer was just
£6730. The taxpayer at the 20th percentile point had a pre-tax income of £11,800,
while the median (50th percentile) taxpayer’s pre-tax income was £19,500. Anyone
earning over £34,800 was in the top 20% and anyone earning over £46,300 was in
the top 10%. Above this, today’s incomes spiral steeply. In 2010–2011, the 99th
percentile income was £140,000 and the income at the 99.999 point would have
amounted to £millions. The ‘squeezed middle’ is not a fiction. They have been held

Table 5. Percentile points for total incomes (taxpayers only), in £.

Before tax After tax
1999–2000 2010–2011 1999–2000 2010–2011
1 4600 6730 4570 6890
10 6570 9350 6340 8800
20 8340 11,800 7780 10,800
50 14,400 19,500 12,500 17,100
80 24,800 34,800 20,800 29.800
90 33,000 46,300 27,300 39,000
99 96,400 140,000 67,500 96,200
Sources: ‘Survey of Personal Incomes 2010–2011, updated December 2012’. HMRC Personal Incomes
Statistics Release 2010–2011,
Leisure Studies 143

back while those above have forged ahead, while those below (the ‘squashed
bottom’) have had their earnings from jobs supplemented by in-work welfare
Soaring incomes at the top will not automatically create a new social class
division, but this will happen if there is a trend towards direct recruitment into those
professional and management posts from which it is possible to rise to the top, and
if this recruitment is mainly from a limited number of ‘top’ universities to which
recruitment tends to be from a limited number of ‘top’ secondary schools whose
pupils tend to be from a limited number of ‘top’ families. Meanwhile, other
graduates increasingly start their careers in occupations which, up to now, have been
classed as ‘intermediate’. These jobs are now being graduatised. Promotion from
these jobs is possible, but if this rarely leads further than the lower management and
professional grades, the former intermediate plus lower management and
professional grades will re-merge into a new lower middle class, separate from the
upper middle class within which very high incomes are possible.
Income disparities between households have been widening further as a result of
the dual earning couple becoming the norm since like tends to partner like, and by
the shift from taxing incomes to less progressive forms of indirect taxation. In the
mid-1970s, the standard rate of income tax was 35 pence and the top rate on earned
incomes was 83 pence. In 2013, the standard rate was 20 pence and the top rate was
lowered from 50 pence to 45 pence. These changes in the class structure define
questions for leisure researchers to pursue.
With or without recessions, one would expect wider income inequalities to lead
to wider class differences in leisure opportunities, spending and activities, and we
can check whether this has happened with sport participation because the GHSs in
1977 and 2002, and the Active People Survey in 2008–2009 compared levels of
sport participation using the same social class scheme (which is slightly different
from all those in Figure 1). It is impossible to read any significance into straight
horizontal comparisons in Table 6 because the published results from the 1977 GHS

Table 6. Sport participation: at least once in last four weeks (in %).
GHS GHS GHS Active People Survey 2008–2009 (at
1977 1977 2002 All least 30 min, at least moderate
outdoor indoor sport intensity)
Large employers 38 24 59 55
and higher
Higher 54 39 59 53
Lower managerial 39 25 51 47
and professional
Intermediate 28 19 43 39
Small employers 43 41
and own
Lower supervisory 28 27 38 38
and technical
Semi-routine 19 15 31 32
Routine 14 11 30 29
144 K. Roberts

give social class breakdowns for participation in indoor and outdoor sport separately
but do not include a combined measurement. In 1977, the difference that was being
made by the indoor sport facilities that were then being opened was of major policy
interest. At that time most sport was still being played outdoors. By 2008–2009
policy interest in sport had switched to health and fitness benefits, and the threshold
for being included as a participant was set higher than in the GHS time series (at
least 30 min of at least moderate intensity). It is vertical comparisons and the
differences between the top and bottom classes in Table 6 that concern us. Income
inequalities widened considerably between 1977 and 2002 and had widened further
by 2008–2009. Was this leading to relative (compared with the averages in each
year) lower participation by the lower classes, and were the higher classes surging
further ahead? Rather than compare top with bottom, it is more meaningful to
compare participation rates in the routine class with those in the intermediate class.
In 1977, the routine class lagged by 14 and 8% and in the twenty-first century by 13
and 6%. This suggests that the least advantaged were neither slipping further behind
nor catching up. An interesting finding at the top of the class structure is that in
1977 the top professionals had higher participation rates than the top managers,
while by the twenty-first century the managers had caught up. By then, unlike in
1977, the top managers had distinctly higher earnings than the top professionals,
and they were catching up in terms of the proportion who had been to university.
Whether there was any surging ahead is best estimated by comparing differences in
the participation rates between lower managers and professionals on the one hand,
and whichever group had the higher participation rate at the time (higher-level
managers or higher-level professionals). In 1977, the differences were 15 and 14%.
In the twenty-first century, the differences had shrunk to 4 and 8%. Far from any
surging ahead, the lead of the top group had diminished.
We are now in a similar position to that reached when searching for recession
effects. Social class differences in participation (in sport) have failed to change
alongside economic changes (wider income equalities in this case). Yet, income
differentials and changes in these differentials can hardly avoid impacting on leisure.
Table 7 shows that this was indeed the case between 2004–2005 and 2011. The
mean disposable weekly household income of the top paid class (large employers
and high-level managers) rose from £797.10 to £861.10. In contrast, mean
disposable household income in the routine class barely rose at all; just from
£416.60 to £418.10. The highest paid class increased its mean spending on
recreation and culture from £100.10 to £115.30, whereas the leisure spending of the
routine class declined steeply from a mean of £62.30 to £46.80. Inflation would
have eroded the real spending power of the routine class, leading to a higher

Table 7. Household spending by occupational classes (in £).

2004–2005 2011
Recreation and Recreation and
culture Total culture Total
Large employers and higher 100.60 797.10 115.30 861.10
Routine 62.30 416.60 46.80 418.10
Source: Food and Expenditure Surveys.
Leisure Studies 145

proportion of household income being absorbed by food, energy and other

essentials. Here, we see a clear leisure effect of widening class income inequalities.
Having confronted the evidence, it is easy to offer explanations of why economic
trends should be reflected in leisure spending but not necessarily in any other leisure
indicators. Whether households in the ‘squashed bottom’ are unemployed or
working poor (these are likely to be the same households at different points in time)
will make little difference to their leisure opportunities. This is the class within
which it has become difficult to make work pay except by reducing the incomes of
the unemployed to sub-poverty levels then hoping that families and charities will
step in. The food banks that have been opening throughout Britain during the
current recession suggest that this has been happening. Unemployed and working
poor families may well experience a surfeit rather than a shortage of free time which
must be filled with something. Some forms of free or low-cost out-of-home leisure
are available for all and sometimes additional opportunities are offered for persons
in receipt of means-tested benefits. In any case, it is possible to engage in most
activities at scaled-down or scaled-up levels of spending. In East-Central Europe in
the 1990s, young people listened to much of the same music, watched the same
films, followed the same top sport, and also dressed indistinguishably from their
Western counterparts but at a fraction of the cost (see Roberts, 2009). At the top of
any country’s class structure, there are time limits to the ability of well-off families
to do more when they become even better off. They can eat only so many restaurant
meals and only so many holidays are compatible with a high salary job. However,
they can spend more on whatever they do. So, wider class differences in incomes
will not necessarily lead to the well-off doing any more than they already do or the
poorest doing even less. Rather, the outcome is more likely to be more or wider
spaced tiers of provisions such as basic facilities in public centres, a middle tier of
commercial health and fitness clubs, and a luxury high-priced tier.

The evidence that has been presented confirms the opening expectations: there have
been leisure effects during recent recessions in Britain and wider economic class
inequalities have led to wider social class differences in leisure. The evidence also
allows us to specify more precisely the character of these differences. However,
there are additional conclusions that can be drawn about the character of leisure
itself and about the achievements and current limitations of leisure studies.
All the arguments presented above are vulnerable to the criticism that the
evidence is not comprehensive: that if different activities were examined, or if differ-
ent thresholds for being a participant were used, the picture would look different.
Here, all leisure researchers must confront a very basic problem. We have not
compiled comprehensive time series of leisure time use, participation and expendi-
ture. There is expenditure and time use data from which leisure time series from the
1960s could be constructed, but nothing comparable for participation rates in most
kinds of leisure. Expenditure data tell us nothing about leisure that is cost free. Time
budgets are blunt instruments for measuring involvement levels and changes over
time in activities that are usually practised less than weekly, and there are scores of
such activities. Maybe in the digital era such time series will be constructed, but this
will depend on standardised surveys being conducted over a long period and, except
for expenditure, nobody is currently committed to this.
146 K. Roberts

There are further problems with the leisure data. We are still in the era of social
science before 1911 when the Registrar General constructed and used (in the 1911
census) the world’s first occupation-based social class scheme. At that time, a
particular concern was variations in mortality rates. These were known to differ by
occupation, but there were thousands of different occupations. What features of
occupations explained the variations? As soon as a class scheme was used a pattern
became clear. Rates of mortality and morbidity were shown to fall progressively
from the top to the bottom of the social class ‘ladder’. This evidence did not explain
the pattern: it did not identify a cause, but it proved to be a giant stride in this
direction. With leisure we are still confronted with scores of leisure activities for
which we can measure participation rates, time use and expenditure. We have still to
discover how, if this is possible, all the data might be summarised by dividing the
population into a limited number of leisure lifestyle groups, analogous to social
classes, then specifying key indicators. Maybe this holy grail will remain forever
beyond reach, and while it remains so the field of leisure research will remain
vulnerable to fragmentation into the study of sport, the arts, tourism, hospitality,
media use and so on, and all efforts to relate ‘leisure’ to anything else will be
vulnerable to criticism for being non-comprehensive.
The evidence that has been presented also highlights certain characteristics of
leisure itself, that is, what the leisure ‘is’ that we must try to explain. These features
remain invisible, and therefore do not cry out for explanation, until the time series
are constructed and examined. Once this is done, one cannot but be impressed by
the stability of leisure participation rates over quite long periods of time. Changes,
when they occur, tend to be gradual and incremental – slight but cumulative changes
as in the GHS time series from the 1970s up to 2002. Time budget evidence corrob-
orates this. When total leisure time increases, as in Britain since the 1960s, it has
done so at the rate of about a minute per day per year (Gershuny, 2000). Men’s
increasing participation in housework has been at the same snail’s pace, slow
motion, to the chagrin of some feminists (e.g. Segal, 2007). Leisure spending is
more volatile – necessarily so as it rises and falls alongside aggregate household
incomes which rise and fall with business cycles. However, responses during the
current recession in Britain show that changes in spending tend to be made in ways
that preserve participation rates. The current recession has been largely accommo-
dated within ongoing leisure practices by reducing (probably delaying until and if
recovery comes) spending on goods rather than services, that is, leisure activities
Leisure participation rates are examples of what Durkheim (1895/1938) called
‘social facts’: regularities in the behaviour of social aggregates that can remain
constant while membership of the aggregates is replenished, but which can and do
vary from society to society and between groups within societies. Examples of
Durkheimian social facts are crime rates, employment rates, divorce rates, birth rates
and, as we have now seen, participation rates in leisure activities. The example that
Durkheim himself selected to illustrate his ‘rules of sociological method’ was
suicide (Durkheim, 1897/1970). Durkheim realised full well (how could he not do
so?) that individual behaviour varied and fluctuated but this was not a sociological
problem. The remarkable feature of all societies, in Durkheim’s view, was that
individual variety could be consistent with stable rates, that is, social facts. Having
discounted genetics, I can think of no plausible explanation of the stability of so
many leisure participation rates except family transmission playing a powerful role.
Leisure Studies 147

This is not to claim that individuals normally continue to live like their parents.
Clearly, this is not the case. Most individuals can change in varied ways while
family transmission explains the stability of the rate for a social aggregate.
Sport participation rose from the 1970s up to the mid-1980s and has been stable
since then. The rise is usually attributed to the opening of new indoor sport and
leisure centres, but subsequent investment in the sport infrastructure, boosted by
funds from the National Lottery since 1994, appears to have made no difference to
the overall participation rate. The same applies to the spread of commercial health
and fitness clubs. Gentle rises in leisure participation and spending during the period
covered in this review are usually attributed to upward trends in real incomes and
changes in population composition, specifically the increase in the proportion of
adults in middle class occupations. International comparisons corroborate these
explanations. As countries become more prosperous, the proportions of income
devoted to leisure tend to rise, and in all countries the better-off strata tend to spend
the higher proportions of their incomes on leisure (Gronow & Southerton, 2011;
Lopez, 2011).
Major changes in the population’s leisure time use, participation rates and
patterns, and expenditure (which include none of the above examples where the
changes have been relatively minor) appear to have been responses to new
provisions, typically based on new technologies, or new uses of existing technolo-
gies, or these uses becoming more widely available than hitherto. Examples include
railways in the nineteenth century which made possible national newspapers,
national sport competitions and holidays away from home. Between the world wars
there was radio and the cinema. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the spread of car
ownership increased the volume of trips to coastal and country sites, heritage sites,
and other attractions (natural and man-made). The jet engine led to a switch from
domestic to overseas holidays. Simultaneously, the really big change was the start of
the age of television. However, we should note that in all these instances the new
developments displaced similar uses of leisure in terms of their roles in people’s life-
styles. In the 1950s, television displaced mainly radio and the cinema, whose earlier
rise had accompanied a long-running decline in alcohol consumption, and overseas
holidays were usually instead of holidays at domestic resorts.
New digital technologies have not made an equivalent impact – not yet at any
rate. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the main leisure uses that
would soon be made of moving pictures and wireless communication were still
awaited. Maybe we are currently waiting for the use of digital technologies that will
reshape our leisure. Up to now, the new gadgets (mobile phones and computers) and
the internet and computer games appear to have displaced nothing. Here we have a
plausible explanation of why so many people complain of increasing stress and time
pressure: they never feel able to switch everything off.
Leisure markets are intensely competitive for most providers. They compete for
shares of markets of constant size. Leisure researchers tend to focus on differences
and try to identify ways of removing constraints that prevent people, especially
those in under-represented groups, doing more of x, y or z. The message from our
accumulated evidence is that rapid and major change is unlikely except on the basis
of a new technology or a new use of an old technology, or a way of reducing the
costs of use. Leisure is where most people seem to use their exceptional scope for
choice to stick to routines. Leisure supplies reliabilities and continuities in lives
during recessions and at other times when much else is in flux.
148 K. Roberts

Notes on contributor
Ken Roberts is professor of sociology at the University of Liverpool where he has been a
member of staff since 1966. His is a founder member, now honorary member and co-opted
member of the Executive Committee, of the Leisure Studies Association. His first book on
leisure, titled simply Leisure, was published in 1970. His other books include Contemporary
Society and the Growth of Leisure (1977), Youth and Leisure (1983), Leisure and Lifestyle
(1989), The Leisure Industries (2004), Leisure in Contemporary Society (2006) and Youth in
Transition: Eastern Europe and the West (2009). He is a past president of the International
Sociological Association Research Committee on Leisure, a past chair of the World Leisure
Organization’s Research Commission and a Senior Fellow of the American Leisure Academy
and the World Leisure Academy.

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