Little more than a year ago, the British dinner party was being offered up as a social good that could re-energise the nation's flagging civic spirit. Young people were urged by the Power Commission to stage a "dinner for democracy". This, it was claimed, would foster political debate and various celebrities were invited to eulogise their ideal guests.
But, judging by research published yesterday, those seeking to engage more people in the political process would be well advised to seek alternative methods. The dinner party is in decline, according to sociologists at the University of Manchester, and particularly among the more affluent professional classes, who would rather pay to eat out with friends than slave over their own stove or pay them a visit.
The professional male is the principal offender, according to the university's comparison of lifestyle habits now and 30 years ago. He is far less likely than his female equivalent to offer hospitality - and if he is married or has children, then abandon all hopes of an invitation.
The research suggests that single people are much more likely to entertain than those who are hitched, and that the childless are more hospitable than those who must undergo the dreaded bedtime ritual before the doorbell rings.
"There is clear evidence that people are spending less time entertaining or visiting other people in their homes," said Dr Dale Southerton, whose three-year research project at the university on people's daily habits is based on the responses of more than 12,000 people in the UK and many more in the United States, the Netherlands and Norway. "We have to conclude that this is a result of people - those who are able to do so - choosing to eat out more instead. Eating out, to some extent, substitutes for eating at home and is replacing time spent entertaining and visiting others."
In 1975, 58 per cent of the population spent 20 minutes a day entertaining or being entertained in other peoples' houses. In 2000, 42 per cent of the population spent a mere 13 minutes a day offering hospitality.
Educational qualifications also have a profound effect on hospitality levels, the research shows. Those who have undertaken higher education have registered the largest decline in the amount of time spent either entertaining or visiting others to eat (from 74 per cent in 1975 to 40 per cent in 2000, compared to a decline from 61 per cent to 43 per cent for those with the fewest qualifications).
The advent of fast food makes a dramatic impact in the new research, with just 22 per cent of meals out lasting more than an hour, against 63 per cent in 1975. But eating out "remains a convivial pastime" too. Even in 2000, almost half of all meals out lasted more than 30 minutes at weekends.
The average amount of time we spend eating out in a day has almost doubled, from 34 minutes in 1975 to 58 in 2000. In France and Britain, a social kudos is attached to eating out, while none exists in the US and Norway, the research found.
But despite our relative lack of hospitality, British families are as likely to eat together as they did 30 years ago - despite a report published this year by the Basic Skills Agency which suggested that a decline of the family meal time was damaging children's conversational abilities.
If anything, we are likely to spend longer around the table en famille. In 1975, 87 per cent of meals at home were eaten in less than 30 minutes, compared to 83 per cent in 2000. "It is reasonable to assume that people who sit down for more than 30 minutes are most likely to do it with either their families or visitors," said Dr Southerton.
25 years of social change
Viewing has increased most rapidly in the Netherlands and Norway but, surprisingly, remains at similar levels in the UK and has fallen in America. The average minutes per day watching TV here were 122 in 1975 and 129 in 2000. People in all four countries now spend less time listening to the radio and walking. Walking took up six minutes a day in the UK in 1975 and three minutes a day in 2000 - perhaps a result of the availability of cars.
There is an evident passion for gardening among people in the UK, which has led to a nine-minute per day increase (from eight to 17 minutes). Religious activities are also up among those surveyed in Britain, though the figures are not exactly encouraging: one minute in 1975 to three a day in 2000.
Despite the advent of TV chefs, we are spending less time preparing meals in 2000 than we did in 1975, though men are spending a lot more time in the kitchen and women a lot less. And because of modern conveniences, we also have more time to sleep. We spent 451 minutes asleep in each 24 hours in 1975, and 503 minutes in 2000
Dinner party memories
Claire Rayner Agony Aunt
Ken and Barbara Follett had a dinner party just after Tony Blair won the Labour leadership. I was sitting next to Blair, with Hugh Laurie nearby. I thought I would much rather be next to Hugh Laurie. My husband was between Fay Weldon and Joan Collins. It was so star-studded it was a joke.
Rowan Pelling Former Editor, 'Erotic Review'
I threw a "toga" dinner party at 17 which was the bottom line of sophistication. I couldn't cook, so I made grilled grapefruit as a starter. Not only was it a disgusting concept but I managed to burn it. By that stage, four of the guests had not turned up and they were the much-needed boys. It was one of those events where the boy you ask for yourself ends up snogging someone else.
Shazia Mirza Comedian
My parents had dinner parties with neighbours and family when I was about seven or eight. They were memorable because of my mum's bad cooking. She put too much chilli in everything. All the food had chilli, even the cakes. People would pretend to eat it but when they left we'd find curries chucked over the garden wall.
Stephen Bayley Style Guru
Last Christmas I reviewed food books for Radio 4, reserving special scorn for a fish encyclopaedia. Days later I found myself at dinner sitting next to the author. The two of us might have avoided the issue had not our hostess said by way of breaking the ice: "Oh yes, Stephen reviewed your book on the radio."
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