Saturday, September 08, 2007

Americans have more leisure time than ever before.

Recently a comment left on the blog repeated the old canard that people today are working longer and longer hours. The evidence against that claim has been strong for decades. I wrote about this about a year ago. Then the New York Times reported, “that married and single parents spent more time teaching, playing with and caring for their children than parents did 40 years ago.”

Economic changes and technological advances did change how people spent their time. The biggest changes were for women. New technologies and convenieces dramatically reduced the amount of time that women spent on “home making” chores.

My grandmother had one the older washing machines and what a job that was to wash clothes. It was a huge tub with a rotating device but no top. You dumped the clothes in and let it churn. Then you empted the water out and turned on the faucets to fill it again with clean water to rinse. And again. Then you pulled the clothes out one piece at a time and ran them through these massive ringers (making sure you didn’t catch your fingers as there were no guards to prevent that since any such device would stop the clothes as well). This rung out the water. Next you hung each piece up to dry. No one had dryers.

I can’t remember there being any clothes that didn’t require ironing. Even that was a bigger task. My aunt did the ironing. She had a Coke bottles (which was the only way you buy Coke at the time) which had a cork in the top that went blocked it. Enough water got through a small opening into a a device that looked like an old watering can with multiple holes in it. You would sprinkle the clothes and then iron, sprinkle and iron. The irons didn’t have the water in them. It was basically a hot piece of metal and nothing more. Eveything took hours more to do.

Women reduced their time doing house work and spent more time in the employment market. Men reduced their time in paid employment and spent more time helping with work around the house. Two goals of the feminists and two good goals in my opinion. Both men and women increased their time with children and both increased their leisure time while work hours, in total, for both decreased. All this reported on this blog a year ago and still up for your reading pleasure.

But, with the comment left here contending the complete opposite, I thought I’d see what the academic field is saying about this. And since my original post dealt more with “family time” than leisure time I thought I’d update what I said to focus more on leisure. This doesn’t contradict what was said in the original piece but compliments it.

The paper I’m using as my source is entitled Measuring Trends in Lesiure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades which was published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The authors are Mark Aquiar, a senior economist at the Fed and Erik Hurst an associate professor at the Univesity of Chicago.

They accessed time diaries which had been collected over decades by various academics and institutions. They found: “Specifically we document that leisure for me increased by 6-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in market work hours) and for women by 4 - 8 hours per week (driven by a decline in home production work hours). This increase in leisure corresponds to roughly an additional 5 to 10 weeks of vacation per year, assuming a 40-hour work week. We also find that leisure increased during the last 40 years for a number of sub-samples of the population, with less-educated adults experiencing the largest increases.”

Work in the employment field and at home are combined to cover total works for men and for women. They found that in 1965 the average man worked 61 hours per week in both fields and the average woman worked 54 hours. By 2003 the time at work for the average man decreased by 7.9 hours and for women by 7.7 hours. The average woman was spending 5 hours per week more in the employment market but at the same time spending 11 hours less per week on domestic work.

Another factor to consider when looking at leisure time that one enjoys is to go beyond the average week of the average employed individual and look at lifetimes as a whole. Then the amount of leisure time increases dramatically. People today enter the work force later in life. More and more we find people working only part-time, often just during the summers, and not entering full-time employment until their 20s. Some manage to drag academics out until their 30s before entering the workforce.

On the other end of the life cycle we witness increased longevity with better health for the elderly than in previous generations. Someone may retire at 65 and live another twenty years. My grandmother retired at 65 and lived for another thirty years.

It is possible that a person could enter the workforce at 25 and retire at 65 while living until 80. Immediately half his life is outside the workforce. But of the 40 years he is working he is averaging forty hours a week out of 168 hours total. Remove holidays and annual vacations from that equation and it comes to around 1,900 hours a year. If you were able to do that straight through without stopping it would be just over 79 days per year or 3,167 days over a lifetime. If you live 80 years you would hae 29,200 days of life. That’s just under 11% of you life spent in employment.

Over your life time employment in the job market takes up a relatively small percentage of your time. True that is concentrated during the prime working years of 25 to 65. But even during those years the average individual spends less than 20% of their time in paid employment when you include holidays and vacations. And none of this includes coffee breaks, sick days, or just loafing around the water cooler, smoke breaks, talking on the phone, or surfing the net for pleasure during work hours.

Sure people continue to work. Productivity is absolutely necessary before consumption is possible. But the role that work plays in the life of the average American has decreased over the years. And the amount of time spent on leisure activities has increased.

I try to think back through my family. Of my four grandparents I believe only my paternal grandmother ever took a vacation outside the United States. I believe she took two cruises after she retired -- she had worked as a clerk at Marshall Field’s department store her entire life. None of the others of took a vacation overseas. I believe my paternal grandfather spent time overseas during World War II but that wasn’t considered a vacation.

My father spent time in Korea during the war but again that “vacation” was not exactly leisure. I have no recollection of my mother spending any time traveling to other countries though she may have been to Canada or Mexico a couple of times, but nothing overseas that I know about. Even though I’ve never held a high paying job I have traveled to Europe more times that I can remember -- literally. I have visited around 25 countries that I can think of off hand.

And the statistics show this to be a major change in how people spend their lives. In 1970 less than 4% of American adutls traveled overseas in any one year. By 2005 the number had more than tripled. American leisure time has increased across the board. It has increased in the number of hours we work per week during our working years. And it has increased as people entire their careers later in life as well as increased through longer years in retirement. This is hardly an example of people working themselves to death.

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