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Critical Faculties

The underworked American

Stop your whining: leisure time is on the rise

IF YOU'RE WORKING next week -- a time designed by nature for fleeing office parks and sweltering, odoriferous cities -- you could be forgiven for feeling a touch of self-pity: poor, overworked American.

Read about labor trends and you'd feel even more beleaguered. In May, a report titled "No-Vacation Nation," from a Washington, D.C., think tank, rubbed our noses in the fact that we get comically brief vacations compared with Europeans. Then there was the recent Harvard Business Review article decrying the rise of the "extreme job": More and more high achievers are forced to choose between a 70-hour workweek or lifetime "Team B" career status.

Working beneath the radar, however, some sociologists and economists have been gathering provocative data that suggest that Americans are not nearly as workaholic as we think we are. True, we don't evacuate our cities in August, like the French. But today, these scholars say, we spend far less time on work than Americans did four decades ago. From 1965 to 2003, according to one study published this month, the average American gained the equivalent of seven weeks of vacation -- in the form of extra leisure time spread throughout the year.

Much of the time-savings comes from a source few people think about when they whine (or brag) about their workweeks: cleaning and cooking. We do much less of it than we used to, thanks to vacuum cleaners, takeout food, and other innovations. And the time-savings there more than offsets the extra time women now spend in offices, according to the study, which appears in the latest issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

"The amount of stuff that my wife and I do around the house, compared to what my mom and father did around the house, is lower by an order of magnitude of 30 or 40 percent than what they did," says Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago who coauthored the study. His parents didn't have a dishwasher. "We have takeout food twice a week from a variety of healthy opportunities; they didn't."

The new study is part of a quiet revolution offering an arguably more accurate, and certainly surprising, portrait of how we spend our time. Hurst, along with coauthor Mark Aguiar, a University of Rochester economist, is among a growing number of scholars who champion the use of so-called time-diary surveys, which ask people to recount in detail how they spent a specific recent day. The technique has been used for decades but is gaining in popularity as economists realize the importance of pinning down the time spent on small, forgettable tasks (like mopping a floor). And it discourages exaggeration, its advocates say, because the time estimates for a given day can't add up to more than 24 hours.

That's important, because when it comes to working hours in our macho office culture, "the greater the estimate, the greater the overestimate," says John P. Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who draws on time-diary data in his own work. "People who estimate 70 hours are more likely to put in 55." That highballing contributes to the sense that we are all overworked.

In their analysis, Aguiar and Hurst break the day into numerous subcategories: "core market work" (time at your desk, or tightening rivets), "total market work" (add the commute), "core nonmarket work" (housework), "obtaining goods and services," and childcare. And they offer four alternative definitions of leisure -- a slippery concept, to be sure. The one that may best match the common-sense view includes playing sports, watching TV, pet care, hobbies, sleeping, and eating. (This definition treats childcare as 100 percent work, though, ignoring the fun parts.)

For men, much of the gain in free time comes from a decrease in on-the-job hours. Their core market work has dropped from 42 to 36 hours weekly, the economists say. Men do about four more hours of housework and shopping a week than they did in 1965. On balance, their leisure time, using the above definition, is up 6.2 hours a week.

The average "core" time women spend on the job has climbed a bit, from 19 to 23 hours, but their total nonmarket work has plummeted -- from 33 to 23 hours. (The data in the study are corrected for demographic shifts.) Leisure has expanded even though both men and women spend about two hours more each week on childcare than in 1965. Overall, women's free time is up by five hours a week, the study finds.

A depressing finding is what we do with our alleged extra time: mostly, watch TV. Hobbies are flat while reading and socializing are both down.

And there is also a striking socioeconomic split in the allocation of free time, according to the new study: Men and women with college degrees have seen no change in leisure time, but the lower you go on the educational scale, the more your free time has grown.

This finding raises a red flag for skeptics of the study -- of whom there are many. John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in D.C., and coauthor of the "No-Vacation Nation" report, points out that Aguiar and Hurst's account -- though an admirable technical accomplishment -- makes the mistake of lumping together voluntary and involuntary leisure. In their study, an executive's round of golf equals a downsized call-center operator's lounging around the house, depressed because he can't get a job.

This touches on a central concern of labor economists, the shrinking options for men in the bottom half of the income scale, Schmitt explains. "It strikes me as a bit of a stretch to say, after all these years of studying the issue, 'Oh, my gosh, what these low-income men decided to do was take more leisure time.'" (Hurst counters that fully half of the increase in leisure time comes from the part of the sample that is employed full-time.)

Other critics point out that by focusing on the increase in average leisure time, it's easy to miss all the people who are seeing less. The sociologist Jerry Jacobs rattles off categories of people whose ranks have grown markedly since 1965: Men who work more than 50 hours a week, women who do so, couples who work more than 100 hours weekly. Sixty percent of married couples today include both a male and female earner, he points out -- and on average those couples work 82 hours a week. Those figures were simply unheard of in 1965.

"Time-diary studies are useful in some ways, but one thing that drives me crazy about them is that people who use them tend to look for national averages," says Jacobs, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of "The Time Divide."

But, as you trudge to work on Monday, forget that academics are warring over just how overworked you are. (Forget, too, that an extra half-hour here and there is just not the same as a month on the Riviera.) Think, instead, lovingly, of those seven extra weeks of vacation that two economists have just announced that you have.

Christopher Shea's column appears regularly in Ideas. E-mail criticalfaculties@verizon.net.

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