It just isn't so. Men and women, working and non-working, spend more time with their children than they used to. How could such an important piece of data have gone unnoticed? We know all there is to know about the grand facts of social and economic life, yet the small details of our own daily lives go almost unrecorded.
But the evidence can be pieced together. Using studies of time use undertaken for other purposes (BBC audience research is one example), we can build a picture of how daily life in Britain has evolved over the past 35 years. We spend more time shopping and in domestic travel, less time on cooking and housework, less time eating at home, and much more time on childcare, defined for the purpose of "time diaries" not just as being there, but as time spent involved in some activity occupying the attention of both parent and child.
As the graph below shows, the amount of time both mothers and fathers spend looking after their children has doubled since 1961. This is more surprising when taken with the substantial reduction in family size. Parents are spending more time actively minding fewer children. Indeed, full- time employed women with children devoted more time to childcare in 1995 than non-employed mothers did in 1961.
Part of the explanation for this growth is that children's lives have become more complex: children use all sorts of personal services - educational, medical, recreational - and as the scale of these facilities grows, their locations become on average more distant from the child's home. Parents are involved in increasingly longer journeys to get their offspring to schools, skating rinks, cinemas and friends' houses.
To this must be added another factor: the lapse in children's "licence to roam". In the UK in 1961, children were allowed a considerable degree of freedom to travel about unsupervised on public transport, play in the street or visit local amenities. But, as Meyer Hillman of the Policy Studies Unit has documented, traffic danger and the perceived growth in child assault mean that children now tend to travel in the company of adults to more distant locations.
But some of the growth in childcare time is more positive. New childcare theories from psychologists, sociologists and even economists have transformed what was once a somewhat unbending British child-raising culture. The now orthodox advice to parents from Penelope Leach (out of Dr Spock) is that "quality time" with children is the touchstone of good parenting. Parents have heeded the advice.
But if childcare takes up more time, working women have had to squeeze the time from other household activities. In 1961 barely one quarter of women had jobs; today they form more or less half of the paid workforce. Obviously, this spectacular growth in the number of women who go to work means that there is less time available for women to spend on housework. Though men, starting from a low base of about 15 minutes a day in 1961, now do more in the house, working women do far less. Consider the evolution of time devoted to cooking. According to BBC surveys, in 1961 adult women between 20 and 60 spent 117 minutes per day in food preparation. By the mid-1990s, cooking time has come down to just 65 minutes per day.
In fact the time spent on all domestic tasks, including house-cleaning and clothes-washing, has decreased since 1961. As expected, women employed full-time do fewer of these unpaid tasks than non-employed women. So the increase in the numbers of full-time working women, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s (most of the more recent growth in women's employment has been in part-time jobs), substantially reduced the overall time spent on housework.
But this does not tell the whole story, since domestic work has also fallen substantially for part-time and non-employed women. Moreover, the average woman with a full-time job has reduced her domestic work (excluding cooking) by around 20 minutes from the total of 110 minutes in 1961 and this despite the fact that in 1995 she was more likely to have a husband and children, and hence more domestic demands, than her 1991 equivalent.
Men have been instrumental in this reduction by taking on more tasks themselves. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey and the British Household Panel Survey, people no longer see household tasks as "women's work" only. And although men still make a pitifully small contribution overall, their 15 minutes housework time in 1961 had increased to 45 minutes in 1995. This partly reflects a growth in unemployment and early retirement. But men in full-time employment also increased their housework time from around 10 minutes per day on average in 1961 to 33 minutes per day in 1995. We find the same growth in men's domestic work in each of the dozen countries for which this sort of data exists. But it does not entirely explain the scale of the reduction in women's domestic work.
Neither does the diffusion of new sorts of domestic equipment, new easy- care materials and ready-prepared foods into British homes, though all have played their part. There is another factor, too.
Housework time has been displaced by other necessary household activities. Consider the upward trends in time devoted to shopping and domestic travel. All groups have had to devote more time to these activities. This trend cannot simply be explained by the fact that we buy more things now. The relatively labour-intensive organisation of local shops and delivery services that in 1961 had survived intact from the Victorian era, has been almost wholly replaced by what we once thought of as the American model of huge self-service stores, located in out-of-town shopping malls. These involve less cost to retailers but more time from shoppers. Time spent acquiring goods and services outside the home is no longer available for housework.
In 1961, both parents and children often sat together for several meals per day. Over a 34-year period we have seen the virtual disappearance of the family meal, replaced by irregular "grazing" of pre-cooked or fast foods. Time devoted to eating has nearly halved during that period, partly reflecting a retreat from the civilities of the table, but also a "masking" of food consumption which increasingly takes place simultaneously with some other activity such as watching television.
This undoubtedly constitutes a loss of private sociability. But the loss may be set against another gain. We go out, to pubs and restaurants, spending on average more than twice as much of our day in such activities as we did in 1961, sometimes with those very household members with whom we no longer eat and drink at home.
So paid jobs for women, some adjustment in gender roles, the reorganisation of retail and other services, and more out-of-house socialising have transformed the way women, in particular, spend their time. It is cheering to note that, contrary to popular myth, children may well be the beneficiaries.
This is an edited version of an article appearing in the January issue of 'Prospect'. The writer is director of the ESRC Research Centre on Microsocial Change at the University of Essex.