Lockdown has changed us. We have slept more, worked less, spent more time doing hobbies and – perhaps most remarkably – shared childcare and housework more equitably.
But, while the world may have tilted on its axis in the spring, any change appears to have been depressingly temporary, research suggests.
Hopes that the pandemic could pave the way for a profound shift in caring responsibilities have been dampened after data from the Office for National Statistics revealed that while men spent more time doing unpaid childcare during the first lockdown, the gains have since been put into reverse.
In May the ONS found that the lockdown had led to a 58% increase in the time men spent on childcare. In 2015, men were spending 39% of the time that women spent on childcare. During the first lockdown it was 64%.
But while both sexes spent less time doing unpaid childcare in September and October as schools reopened, the burden of childcare fell disproportionately on women, who were doing 99% more unpaid childcare than men.
On average – keeping in mind that the number of minutes spent applies across the entire population and not just parents – men spent on average just under 16.9 minutes a day on unpaid childcare, compared with 33.6 minutes spent by women (an improvement on 2015).
“This data suggests we are returning back to the old normal. If we want to keep some of the potential improvements in gender equality, we cannot leave things to chance,” said Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society. “We need a rescue package for childcare providers, flexible work by default, and use-it-or-lose-it leave for new dads to make change stick.”
Michael Lewkowicz, a spokesman for Families Need Fathers, said society was not set up to enable couples to share childcare more equitably.
“The ONS data shows that given the opportunity, fathers are able and willing to step up to the plate,” he said. “The UK has the biggest differential in statutory parental leave in the world, at 52 to two weeks between mothers and fathers. State support remains locked in a time that simply does not reflect the reality and diversity of family life today.”
During lockdown, the fact that men had “discovered housework” was hailed as an unexpected upside, but that too appears to have been short-lived. In all three time periods covered by the survey (2014-15, March-April 2020 and September-October 2020), women reported doing more housework than men.
Women were doing 44% more housework in March and April, down from 2014-15, but by September women were spending 64% more time on household responsibilities.
Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group, said direct action at government level was needed if any gains were not to be erased. “Women’s unpaid work is at the heart of their economic inequality,” she said. “It means less time for paid work, so women earn less, own less and are more likely to be poor. If we are going to build back better, this has to mean not returning to business as usual when it comes to housework and childcare.”
The data is based on self-reporting from a sample size of 1,500 individuals across Britain.
Elsewhere, the survey showed the amount of time working from home has increased across all income brackets, but particularly among the higher-paid groups. Households earning between £1,700 and £3,300 per month, and those earning more than £3,300 per month, now spend up to six times as much time working from home as in 2014-15.
There was some indication that some middle-income earners had returned to the office by the autumn, while higher earners reduced their workplace hours in March/April and reduced them again in September/October. They now spend half as much time in the workplace as in 2014-15.
Those in the lowest economic bracket (households earning up to £1,700 per month) saw little difference in how much time they spent in the workplace before and during lockdown, and have since increased the amount of time they spend working outside the home.
Britons are also sleeping less. During the first lockdown, people spent an average of nine hours and 11 minutes asleep or resting, an increase of 18 minutes on 2014-15, but by September/October people had reverted to pre-pandemic habits and spent eight hours 53 minutes sleeping or resting.
And while during the initial lockdown the amount of time people put into gardening and DIY increased by 143% – from 16 minutes in 2014-15 to 39 minutes, by the autumn the figure had dropped to 28 minutes.
Although seasonal differences will have played a role in the drop, the ONS suggested another reason: people had perhaps “completed those longstanding chores”.