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Rhythms of daily life

by Megan Cook

For 19th-century Māori and settlers, daily life was structured by seasons, the phases of the moon and – for settlers in particular – the days of the week. Today the rhythms of daily life are increasingly shaped by work and school hours, public transport timetables and even television schedules.

Schedules and routines of life

Contemporary routines

In the 1990s and 2000s most New Zealanders spent most of their time in a combination of paid employment, television watching, eating and drinking and socialising. Once sleep was added to the mix, nearly 70% of the day was accounted for. With a few other activities thrown in – voluntary work, sport, gardening, housework, reading, shopping and going out, along with the necessary travel time – that was the day filled.

When these activities are put together a pattern emerges, a rhythm of daily life, managed by the calendar and the clock, and shaped by set schedules for work, education, television and public transport. The rhythm varies with the days of the week, the seasons, and holidays. It also varies according to a person’s age, family situation, and the type of paid employment or education that they undertake.

There are work days and play days. In summertime walking to work rather than driving, playing outside, and going to parks or the beach are added to daily and weekly routines. Winter cold, along with fewer hours of light, pushes people towards staying indoors and keeping warm.

Holidays allow a break from ordinary routine, a chance to ignore the clock, lie in bed, lounge on the couch reading, or watching television or DVDs, explore the internet, play games, play sport, meet friends or go swimming, biking, walking or skiing.

Wash day

In the 19th century Saturday night was time to get clean, ready for Sunday and best clothes. The habit was so widespread that one of the Māori words for Saturday – Rāhoroi – means wash day. Most 19th-century New Zealand homes didn’t have a bathroom, so a tin bath was brought into the kitchen (the warmest room in the house), and filled with water heated in the wash-house copper or on the coal range.

Nineteenth-century Pākehā

In 19th-century New Zealand the rhythm of life was strongly set by the seasons, the weather, the phases of the moon, and the days of the week. More than half the Pākehā population was rural, and sowing, harvesting, burning off, shearing, mustering and droving were all seasonal activities which were weather dependent to varying degrees.

Events – dances, meetings and even elections – were planned around phases of the moon, as a full moon made getting home after dark easier.

Weekly schedules

Home and community life ran to weekly schedules that intersected on Saturday and Sunday. In many communities Saturday was a half-holiday (although some communities chose a mid-week half-holiday instead). That meant people were at work in the morning and had the afternoon off. Saturday was also payday, when sports matches were held, and shops were open late. In rural areas it was market day.

On Sunday about a quarter of the population attended church and afterwards visited or were visited by family and friends. For non-church goers (whose children might still be sent off to Sunday school), it was a day of rest and often recreation.


Beyond the basic getting up, getting dressed and eating breakfast, children’s daily routines varied greatly. Helping with household tasks was the norm and many children worked, but most mid-19th-century New Zealand children – particularly, but not only, boys – had considerable freedom. When education became free and compulsory in 1877, a daily rhythm gradually took hold, and by 1901 almost all children attended school.

Nineteenth-century Māori

The seasons shaped the year for the 95% of Māori who were rural. Many moved around their rohe (tribal area), setting up temporary homes while gathering particular foods. Some of the paid work commonly done – harvesting and shearing – was also seasonal.

Daily rhythms among Māori differed significantly from those among Pākehā. Being alone was far less common. People slept in a whare puni (family sleeping house), food was cooked in a shared kitchen, and most of that food was grown, harvested or foraged for with the whānau. Groups washed clothes in nearby rivers or portable tubs, and paid work was done in whānau-based gangs.

Change over time

These differences between Māori and Pākehā life continued until the mid-20th century. After the Second World War urbanisation and engagement in waged work altered daily life for many Māori, bringing it closer to that of Pākehā.

Children and teenagers

For five days a week school, along with parental work routines, determines the rhythms of daily life for New Zealand children and teenagers. From the ages of six to 16 children are required to attend school, with virtually all starting at five years old and many continuing until the age of 18.

From Monday to Friday the mornings include dressing, breakfast and ablutions, then getting to school, usually on foot, or by car, train or bus. In some households children might also make their own beds, tidy their room, or make their lunch.

After school, they scatter. They may go home or to a relative’s or friend’s place, or they may head to after-school care, sports practice, an extra-curricular class or a parent’s workplace. Then it’s home for dinner, playing or television, a story, ablutions, and bed. Older children and teenagers may also do homework, hang out with friends, go into town, or if at home, may phone, message or skype friends, and play computer games.

As they get older still, going out in the evening, particularly on Friday or Saturday nights, becomes part of the routine.

Pre-school routines

Children under five have a different rhythm. In 2011, 90% of children aged three or four attended an early childcare centre, spending an average of 20 hours a week there.

For those with a parent not working or in part-time work, life can follow a relaxed routine of childcare and home, going to local parks or playing in the backyard. For those with working parents, life is more regimented. They are often bustled off to childcare in the morning and picked up on a parent’s way home after work.

Weekends and school holidays

Weekends are a time for relaxing, playing sport, doing household chores and catching up with homework. School holidays are a longer version of the weekend for children with a parent or caregiver at home. Those with working parents are often in holiday care programmes, with some time at home or on holiday.

Helping out

Well into the 20th century the first few months of the year meant breakfast, chores and then out to work, all before school for some country kids. Some helped with harvesting or bringing in hay, others with milking. It was a tiring life, and they might end up falling asleep at their school desks before returning home to another round of work.

Change in the 20th century

Daily routines for teenagers used to be similar to those of working adults. At the beginning of the 20th century most children left school at about 13 and went to work. Their daily rhythm was dictated by their hours of work. This changed as increasing numbers went to secondary school and the leaving age was lifted to 15 (1944) and then 16 (1989).

Paid work

Children’s and teenagers’ money-earning activities have been an important part of their routine. Most happened after school – newspaper rounds, working in cafés, babysitting, cleaning jobs – but a few, like milk runs, were an early-morning activity.

Working-age adults

Paid work

In 2012, 64% of New Zealanders aged 15 to 65 were in paid employment, which shaped the rhythm of their daily lives. Dairy farmers got up early for milking, sometimes eating two breakfasts – a quick tea and toast before and another after seeing to the cows. Meat and horticultural workers had a seasonal routine, while many office workers worked a 40-hour week.

Differences between men and women

Gender and marital status shaped daily rhythms until the later 20th century: women, with or without children, usually stayed at home while men went out to work.

Routines among working men included going home for lunch (common until the Second World War), and joining the six o’clock swill at the pub for a drink after work (from 1917 to 1967). Weekends were spent on sport, catching up on household or garden work, and relaxing. Among women the week was shaped by household tasks. Monday, for example, was wash day, and some women continued the 19th-century pattern of ironing on Tuesday and baking on Friday. Some routines were shared – first Saturday night and then Friday night shopping (the latter a national ritual from 1945 to 1980) and Sunday outings were often enjoyed by the whole family.


Social life was fitted around work. In the early 20th century leisure activities and rest were crammed into Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday. As the weekend expanded from one day to two in the 1930s, dances, movies and sport spread through Friday night, Saturday and Sunday.

Changing patterns of work

The number of women, including those with children, in the paid workforce went from 19.3% in 1901 to 47.5% in 2006. Differences in routine emerged between women with children and other adults in paid employment. Mothers tended to organise their working life around their children as far as possible, while men and women without children did not. Many women, particularly those with children, worked a ‘second shift’, getting home to housework and cooking.

In the 2000s the range of working hours had widened. In 2006, 19% of New Zealanders were working more than 50 hours a week, 40% had variable hours of work, 18% were doing shift work and about a quarter did some night work. These variations altered daily and weekly rhythms, disrupting socialising, sporting activity and family contact.

Pyjamas in public

In 2012 a brief media storm blew up around the adoption of pyjamas as daywear by some people, usually women. It was seen by some as upsetting the natural rhythm of daily life. Women in one-piece pyjama suits wandered through Wellington railway station; dressing gowns and pyjama pants were seen in Gisborne supermarkets; and even nightgowns were worn out and about. Public opinion was deeply divided – should it be allowed? If not, who was responsible for stopping it?


The daily rhythm of the unemployed – 7% of those aged 15 to 65 in 2012 – was sometimes given considerable political attention. A time-use survey carried out in 2009 and 2010 provided detail. Unemployed people spent an average of four hours a day on household tasks, child and family matters and community service.

Two hours a day were spent on socialising, about three and a half hours watching television and using the internet, and about an hour on sports and hobbies. Among the unemployed, 23% were in education or training, spending an average of just under five hours a day on this.

Voluntary work

Nearly a third of New Zealanders did voluntary work in 2010. In many cases this was a regular commitment, a part of the daily or, more usually, weekly routine.

Older people

Retirement is considered a time to take it easy, and for many people over the age of 65, it means life falls into a more relaxed rhythm. Sleeping a little later, socialising and playing sport, visiting and helping out family all become possible on weekdays as well as weekends.

In the early 2000s outdoor activity – gardening, walking, and sport – was a standard part of the day for about 80% of older people, with visiting cafés and the local library also favoured. The importance of socialising is emphasised by the amount of time many older people, particularly women, spend alone.

While most of those over 65 leave paid work, their hours of unpaid work increase. In 2009–10, retirees did four and a half hours of unpaid work around their home – more than any other group. They also undertook a significant amount of voluntary work.

Paid employment

A sizeable minority of older people continue in paid employment. In 2009, 34% of those aged 65-69 were employed. Men were more likely to continue working – 41% were employed, compared with 27% of women. Older workers were more likely to be in part-time work or self-employed. A daily rhythm that was flexible and allowed time for leisure and rest was what most preferred.

The percentage of those in work dropped by more than half from the age of 70.

Family or community networks

The kind of network within which an older person lives shapes their daily routine. Older people within a family network help out with childcare, cook meals, pass on skills and have daily and supportive contact with other adult family members. Networks of this kind are often found in Māori and Pasifika families.

Older people within a community network are also more likely to get day-to-day practical support and social contact from friends and community contacts.

Health and energy

Health dictates daily life for some people. For those in good health, the kind of pattern outlined above may be enjoyed for many years. Problems such as limited mobility, hearing loss or the need to rest more can be managed without greatly altering daily rhythms. Those with more serious health problems sometimes require supported living or hospital care.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Rhythms of daily life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 September 2013