Potatoes on couch

Time for Life

May 8, 1998

In 1991, Juliet Schor published The Overworked American. She pointed to the general increase in working hours among Americans, emphasising the particularly time-challenged senior salariat. Her conclusions were based on data that John P. Robinson and his colleagues had gathered since 1965 by getting respondents to keep detailed time budgets of how they spent every minute over a 24-hour period.

An increasing lack of leisure among the erstwhile leisure class is certainly substantiated by Time for Life, by Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey. But Schor's general thesis - that work-and-spend industrial capitalism has forced people to work longer hours, take less vacation and feel the time-squeeze at home - is not supported by their data. Indeed, they sharply rebuke Schor for misunderstanding and misinterpreting their data, claiming that "our results and conclusions about trends in hours spent at work are notably different from Schor's".

Airlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift (1989), also receives an academic smack on the wrist for largely ignoring the authors' data and for concentrating on what they claim is a small and atypical sample of 50 working couples in California. Hochschild's thesis that there is a growing "leisure gap" between men and women resonated well with her female readership. Although it might have been confirmed by the experience of some women, it might also have provided some comfort to sisters looking to find solidarity in exploitation by more time-rich men. But Robinson and Godbey say Hochschild got it wrong. Their data are larger and more comprehensive than hers, and they did not find a leisure gap in 1965 or in any subsequent year. They argue that women do not work more hours than men or have less free time: the free-time difference between men and women actually declined from 1.4 weekly hours in 1965 to 1.2 hours in 1985. "As with time spent in productive activities," the authors remark, "some invisible hand seems to have been keeping the genders roughly equivalent on this important statistic".

The authors present a number of other counter-intuitive results. By and large, they are optimistic: Americans are gradually getting more free time, not less. The bad news is that they are using this time to watch television. The authors' determination to be optimistic sometimes seems to warp their judgement: for example, they say that television is "ideally suited to taking up small gains in free time". So great was the increase of television watching between 1965 and 1975 that Robinson did not believe his results and hired a new set of coders to re-analyse the data. The re-coded results matched the original results almost exactly: TV viewing had increased by 50 per cent during the decade. Thereafter, happily, the hours of viewing levelled off. Even so, it is notable that the college-educated and more affluent spend more than a third of their free time watching TV.

So, does this book provide strong confirmation for the thesis developed by Robert Putnam (who provides a foreword that summarises the book with enviable elegance), namely that there has been a decline of social capital -Jthat is, the networks, norms and trust that people need to act effectively in the pursuit of shared objectives? The authors attempt to measure trends in social capital activities and reveal that far from showing any noticeable decline, these activities grew by just over an hour between 1965 and 1985. This inevitably masked differences: for example, a decline in socialising was offset by an increase in sports and exercise.

There is so much valuable data here that the book should surely be on every journalist's bookshelf. Of particular interest is the small section providing an update based on a national sample of 1,000 respondents interviewed in December 1995. A decline in time spent watching television was recorded, together with declines in reading books, newspapers and magazines. Time spent on paid work, house cleaning and cooking did not decline. Indeed, house cleaning showed a slight increase for women and men - more for men. In the case of cooking, women spent 6.5 hours a week instead of 7.1 hours, whereas for men the time increased from 4.7 to 5.5 hours. The authors conclude that "Americans seem to be rating free-time media activities lower and productive activities such as house cleaning and paid work higher." Men seem set to take over as cooks, but, of course, a good proportion of these will be men living on their own. (In Britain, a quarter of all households are single people.) Inevitably, a book such as this raises as many questions as it purports to answer, but it must rank as one of the few serious, authoritative and substantial contributions to the analysis of how we all use our time. Each chapter is full of fascinating detail. We have well-established national surveys on how we earn our money (The Labour Force Survey) and how we spend it (The Family Expenditure Survey). If Britain were to establish a National Time Use Survey, the work by Robinson and his colleagues would serve as an essential and valuable foundation on which to build.

Ray Pahl is visiting professor, ESRC Research Centre on Micro-social Change, University of Essex.

Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use their Time

Author - John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey
ISBN - 0 1 01652 3
Publisher - Pennsylvania State University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 367

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