Leisure is an important component of human life and a form of self-expression. The quality and diversity of leisure can affect people’s health and sense of well-being. Contemporary approaches to studying leisure view it not only from the perspective of freedom of choice and one’s personal interests. Researchers also take into account the structural conditions of access to leisure for various groups of people. What people’s leisure looks like is affected by different factors, particularly their occupation and labor conditions, the amount of free time they have, their income levels, gender, age, place of residence, availability and access to infrastructure for rest and leisure.

In this study, we focused on the leisure and cultural needs of young people who live in Kherson, Ivano-Frankivsk and Khmelnytsky and work in the service sector, in information technology, and in culture and creativity. The focus group discussions also involved students in departments adjacent to these occupation spheres. In addition, we focused on the priorities and processes of development of these cities’ cultural and youth policies, and we described some features of the work of public and communal culture institutions.

The study consisted of two parts: the desk stage, which involved an overview of regulatory documents that shape the cultural policies of the selected cities, an analysis of qualitative data from Kantar Ukraine, and a literature review; and the field stage, which involved using qualitative research methods and conducting focus group discussions and in-depth interviews.

The field stage of the study took place in July-September 2020. During this part, we conducted 18 focus group discussions with young people from Khmelnytsky, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kherson. For each of the cities, we conducted 6 online focus group discussions with young people aged 18-35 who work in the service sector, information technology, and culture and creativity. We also conducted and analyzed 30 in-depth semi-structured interviews with representatives of government agencies, culture institutions and NGOs that work in the field of culture, as well as NGOs that work with vulnerable youth groups.

Young people do not often associate leisure and rest with cultural events and institutions. Focus group participants described rest as space for recuperation and restoring one’s mental health. They also mentioned that rest for them was an opportunity not to work and not to think about work. Some young people who work in the service sector mentioned that rest for them meant satisfying their basic needs, such as sleep. Young people who work in the sphere of IT, for instance, noted that sometimes their work and rest were not that different from each other. In addition, young people barely distinguished between the concepts of “rest” and “leisure.” However, some said that rest was associated with recuperation and usually took place in a private space. On the other hand, young people associated leisure with public spaces in cities, and with cultural institutions.

One of the factors that affect young people’s leisure is their sphere and type of employment and their labor conditions. The amount of free time which can be used for leisure depends on the length of the workday or the flexibility of hours, as well as on other labor conditions. For instance, people who worked remotely or were freelancers said that they often spent their leisure time at home because they could receive a new work task at any moment.

Representatives of the so-called creative industries, as well as service sector workers, are characterized by trends towards unstable employment, blurred boundaries between work and free time. Young people who work in the sphere of culture and creativity sometimes identify their work with leisure. Despite their precarious working conditions, they tend to romanticize their work and see it as their calling which brings them satisfaction. They also complained about different volumes of work and incomes during various periods in the year, about low salaries in public culture institutions. People who work in the service sector pointed at the lack of free time or opportunities to attend public city events because they often work on weekends and holidays.

Based on the results of our quantitative data analysis, on weekdays, young people in big cities prefer private, domestic rest; but on weekends, the fractions of those who spend their leisure time at home and outside of home become practically equal. However, rest and leisure are more likely to be seen as residual: time after work, studies, and domestic chores. This also manifests in the fact that of all spending from their budget, young people are the most likely to save money on the costs of leisure (73%), vacations and trips (71%). The highest fraction of young people in big cities spend their non-working hours in passive leisure: at least once a week, they use the internet (82%), listen to music (67%), watch videos (55%) and television (50%). Relatively much lower number of young people visit cinemas (14%), concerts, theaters and art exhibitions (5% each) at least once a month.

Income levels also affect the ways young people spend their free time. Based on the results of analyzing quantitative data, we noticed that the leisure of high-income people is more varied compared to those who earn less. Among young people with incomes above the average level across Ukraine, a rather high fraction (42%) read books during the week. As incomes decrease, the fraction of residents who read decreases as well. However, among the respondents with the lowest income (less than 2,500 UAH), the fraction of readers is almost as high as among the highest-income group.

We should also mention the gender characteristics of young people’s leisure and free time. Young men and women have different amounts of free time. For instance, women additionally engage in reproductive labor: domestic chores, childcare. They are more likely than men to associate leisure with time free not only of work, but also of domestic chores. The quantitative data analysis has demonstrated a significant difference between men and women in the ways they spend their free time. 78% of young women take care of their residence after work. At the same time, only 38% of young men perform similar duties.

The feeling of safety affects women’s and men’s leisure differently. Women mentioned that after attending events at night they felt uncomfortable if they had to travel home alone. Young women also mentioned the feeling of danger when attending mass cultural events in cities, because they would usually encounter men under the influence of alcohol at these events. In addition, women said that increasing the number of police officers during these events did not affect their feeling of safety and comfort.

Another difference in women’s and men’s leisure is their different participation in active leisure, such as sports. At focus group discussions, men were more likely than women to mention sports as a part of leisure; they also spoke about engaging in various kinds of sports. For women, doing sports is one of the ways to escape reproductive work at home.

Having children is an important factor which affects the amount of free time and leisure. While organizing their leisure, young people with children tend to meet their children’s needs and interests first, and only then take care of their own. Men and women saw the time they spent with children differently. Women often mentioned that they had to perform various care duties—for instance, take their children to the kindergarten. Women were more likely than men to say that “time for themselves” meant taking time off not only from work, but also from household chores and childcare.

Occupation, the amount of free time, income levels, having children, being involved in the city’s cultural life generally affect young people’s needs and requests in terms of leisure. Young people of different occupations in all cities expressed the need for alternative culture. By this, they usually meant events or spaces whose thematic content or format would be different from the available public and communal institutions. Sometimes by “alternative culture,” young people meant institutions’ openness to collaboration and opportunities to initiate and organize their own events.

On the one hand, young people working in the sphere of culture and creativity articulated detailed proposals on how to develop alternative cultural leisure. For instance, in Kherson, people who work in music mentioned the lack of rehearsal and event venues. In all three cities, FGD participants mentioned a lack of events related to contemporary art, particularly exhibitions, theater performances. On the other hand, people who do not work in culture and creativity and do not attend cultural institutions expressed their demand for alternative culture in a different way. For example, some participants mentioned wax figure museums or vintage car exhibitions. These ideas may indirectly indicate dissatisfaction with the events and topics offered by the existing cultural institutions. This can also mean that while developing cultural policies and thematic content of institutions, it is worth researching the potential audience and working not on implementing specific wishes, but on meeting young people’s needs.

Young people in all three cities expressed the need for increasing the number of non-commercial spaces, such as spaces for conducting one’s own events. An example of such spaces is the municipal youth center in Khmelnytsky. Discussion participants had positive feedback about the space, mentioning their own experiences of visiting it. At the same time, representatives of culture institutions gave examples of successful collaborations between their institutions and the youth center. In addition to cultural events, the youth center regularly hosts human rights and environmental events, as well as inclusive events for young people with disabilities. During discussions in Kherson and Ivano-Frankivsk, young people mentioned the need to open similar youth centers in their own cities. They also said that creative youth had limited access to professional art platforms.

Young people mostly associate public culture institutions with mass culture accessible to broad population groups. In turn, non-governmental culture institutions are often associated with experimental art formats. Another feature of non-governmental culture institutions, mentioned in Ivano-Frankivsk, is the existence of communities around these places. Meanwhile, public and communal institutions often do not form these centers of gravity and do not bring people together around them.

In general, most focus group participants said that there was enough leisure and rest infrastructure in their cities. However, civil sector representatives and some young people working in culture were usually critical of the availability and accessibility of leisure infrastructure. In Ivano-Frankivsk, they mentioned that the city lacked an alternative theater which would work with social problems and promote community development. In turn, in Kherson, they mentioned the problem of privatization and closure of some communal culture institutions, such as the Illusion Cinema. Khmelnytsky was described by young people as a “festival city,” and they mentioned an increased number and improved quality of cultural events. However, young people also mentioned a lack of events related to contemporary art and high-quality cultural leisure in Khmelnytsky.

An important trend is young people’s demand for transformations, additions to the classic functions of culture institutions. Libraries are the best example here. Most young people do not use libraries to borrow books. Youth in all three cities said that they visited libraries for thematic events, discussions, festivals. There is a demand for transforming libraries into community centers where in addition to learning and borrowing books, people could also spend their leisure and communicate.

The approach to engaging young people in cultural leisure and culture institutions should also change. In all three cities, young people mentioned unpleasant memories related to mandatory visits to museums and theaters during their studies at school or college. For some, these visits were the last in their lives and cemented their association of these culture institutions with something prescriptive and uninteresting.

It should be noted that cinemas are the cultural institutions which young people visit the most often. On the one hand, this confirms the analysis of qualitative data, because of all the activities usually organized in culture institutions, the highest number of urban young people choose visiting cinemas (14%), and much fewer young people attend concerts, theaters and exhibitions (5% each). On the other hand, this trend is indirectly evidenced by the fact that FGD participants formulated their requests for improving the work of cinemas more precisely than their wishes with regard to other culture institutions. At the same time, young people often consider cinemas comfortable only in combination with food and other entertainment, such as shopping, while films themselves are often secondary for them. This perception of cinemas is a marker of consumer culture in general and reflects the trend towards the commercialization of culture.

Public and communal culture institutions in cities often view young people as their target audience. But culture institutions sometimes do not have separate strategies for engaging young people. They often work with schoolchildren and students, as well as young people with children. However, they rarely have special programs or events targeted at working youth who have completed their formal education.

Some representatives of culture institutions mentioned that young people visited their institutions the least, and there can be different reasons for this in different age brackets. For instance, some pointed out that students rarely visited them. In the opinion of employees of culture institutions, the reason for this can lie in mandatory visits to theaters and museums during school years. On the other hand, working youth may not have enough free time because of work or childcare. One of the representatives of culture institutions admitted that people over 35 were one of the groups that were the hardest to reach because cultural leisure was not a priority for them, they were more busy with work or children.

One important problem for public and communal culture institutions is the lack of funding, which causes unsatisfactory material and technical state of facilities and a lack of workers, particularly young people, among the staff. The lack of funding and qualified personnel can be the reason for their inability to develop alternative cultural formats or meet young people’s needs for events related to contemporary art.

While developing cultural or youth policies, government bodies in the selected cities target “youth” in general and do not distinguish any other subcategories. Cities usually have programs to support some vulnerable groups of young people, such as people with disabilities, low-income people, young people who were orphaned, internally displaced people. However, most of the events are associated with social support for these people, rather than engaging them in the city’s cultural life.

Other groups of young people are also excluded from the cultural life of cities and from public leisure practices. In Ivano-Frankivsk, according to an NGO representative, the city’s cultural life leaves out members of national and ethnic communities, Roma people, foreigners. As well as LGBTQI+ people who can face discrimination if they declare their identity or want to hold a thematic event.

According to civil sector representatives in Kherson, the needs of people with disabilities are not sufficiently taken into account while developing culture and youth policies. Civil activists from Kherson also mentioned that women and LGBTQI+ people are not too actively engaged in cultural events organized by government bodies in Kherson either.

In Khmelnytsky, representatives of government bodies mentioned that they did not include the needs of individual vulnerable groups while conducting various cultural events because, in their opinion, there are no obstacles to these people’s involvement in cultural leisure. At the same time, they emphasized that the culture section of the City Development Strategy does not specifically mention the needs of women, national minorities, LGBTQI+ people. Despite the lack of comprehensive policies targeting the leisure of vulnerable youth groups, each city has individual successful examples of engaging these groups in the city’s cultural life.

The culture and youth policies in all three cities, on the one hand, target teenagers, students, young people with children. However, they also overlook students of professional-technical institutions and working young people without children.