It's not popular to tell the working masses that they've got plenty of time to burn, but according to Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State University, Americans are sitting on a gold mine of free time, and he's got the data to prove it.
"We don't have an ideological ax to grind," says Godbey, defending the results of his research. "This is just what we found."
In "Time for Life: Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time," Godbey argues that previous reports which say that Americans are working harder than ever are exaggerated.
"When you ask people how many hours they worked last week, we found that they estimate that they worked an average of one to seven hours per week more than they actually worked," says Godbey. "And the more they work, the higher their estimations of work become. What we think happens is that people mistake pace for duration. They may be working hard, but they're not working any longer."
Godbey and his co-author, John Robinson, asked workers to keep diaries of how much time they spent on the job. Robinson is a professor of sociology and director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland. The data from the 5,358 time diaries revealed shocking trends.
"The diaries showed that between 1965 and 1985, 18-to-65-year-olds gained almost an hour a day in leisure time," says Godbey.
More specifically, working women put in an average 36.8 hours per week on the job in 1965. In 1985, that number dipped to 30.8 -- adding six hours per week in leisure time. Employed men clocked an average 46.5 hours in 1965, compared to 39.7 hours in 1985. That means they're enjoying nearly seven hours more leisure time per week. When men and women -- both employed and unemployed -- are aggregated, it turns out that Americans have almost five more hours of free time per week than they did in the '60s.
The diaries also revealed:
On the average, women and men work about the same number of hours a week, even when the term "work" includes nonpaid work like housework and child care. While women tend to spend 30.9 hours per week on aspects of family care (compared to men's 15.9 hours per week), women tend to participate in paid work less when their family demands are greatest. Not only that, but for all women of all ages, the amount of time dedicated to housework has been on a steady decline since 1965.
While some people are indeed working harder, the trend is not as big as it seems. Less than 20 percent of Americans have fewer than 20 hours a week of free time.
While many people claim they forgo sleep in order to get everything done, there's little evidence that Americans are sleeping less. Women are getting 55 to 57.6 hours of sleep a week and men are getting 54.7 to 59.5 hours. Those numbers do not deviate significantly from figures reported in 1965.
In 1985, Americans ages 18-64, had an average 40 hours per week of free time, compared to 35 hours per week in 1965. The largest chunk of our free time (15 hours) is plowed into watching television as a primary activity. Even as a secondary activity (that is, watching TV while paying the bills or folding laundry), television is still No. 1.
How is it that our perception of available free time deviates so wildly from reality?
First, just because the average numbers reflect more leisure time doesn't mean that you don't experience "episodic labor crunches," explains Godbey. For example, the more roles you have the more time pressure you're likely to experience: homeowners are busier than non-homeowners, people with children are busier than people without, and working mothers on the average have less leisure time than stay-at-home moms. There are also episodic labor crunches based upon things like gender, race and socioeconomic status.
"For example, women's time is more permeable and interruptible than men's," says Godbey. "They are more likely to change their priorities based upon their spouse's jobs, the needs of their children, etc. That creates more unpredictable pressure on their time."
Third, free time rarely comes in segments large enough for us to feel a real lessening of time pressure. "Of the 40 hours of free time we have per week, 25 come on weekdays in small chunks," says Godbey. "That doesn't really provide a psychological break for people."
But the fact that Americans think they work harder than they do also reflects a cultural sea change, most notably in our attitudes toward leisure, say the authors. In the optimism which followed World War II, Americans began to believe that progress, and the accompanying increases in the standard of living, would be infinite.
"What emerged was a ‘psychology of entitlement,' in which increasing levels of consumption were seen as more or less automatic -- and something the system owed the individual," write the authors.
That, coupled with the rise in advertising, created a consumption-driven society where the concept of "enough" has virtually disappeared.
"In the ancient Greek notion of leisure, contemplation was an ideal," Godbey and Robinson say. "Later, ‘leisure' was thought of as ‘pastimes,' but one cannot ‘pass' the time if efficiency is the primary goal. One can only ‘spend,' ‘invest,' and ‘save' it, or one will surely ‘lose' it."
In order to be as efficient as possible, we engage in "time deepening, "a term Godbey uses to describe the strategies we use to make the most of every moment. Time deepening carries over from work into leisure, robbing leisure of its tranquillity.
"When time is viewed as a scarce resource, you behave differently," he says. "You watch TV, eat dinner and read the newspaper all at the same time. You substitute a quicker activity (doing aerobics for 45 minutes) rather than a slower one (playing tennis for two hours), or you do things with temporal precision (‘I'll see you at 8:45') rather than with approximations. (‘Come anytime around noon')."
Gone are the days when leisure meant learning to play Chopin or crafting furniture.
The researchers conclude that it's time for Americans to come to grip with the difference between "free time" and "leisure."
"It's amazing how people are spending their free time watching television," says Godbey, yet women report that television is less satisfying than cleaning the house, and men report that it's less satisfying than cooking.
Forgotten, adds Godbey, is the notion that leisure also embodies the notions of pleasure and activities which are intuitively worth doing.
"Many people have developed dysfunctional attitudes toward time as a infinitely expandable resource. Almost by definition, that means one can never have enough time -- even though we may really have all the time we need."
Every American Working Family's Wish List
A Living Wage.
A Live in Nanny.
A Closed Circuit Nanny Cam.
A Four Wheel Drive Corvette Station Wagon.
Flex Time (Meaning Work More Flexible to Families Instead of Vice Versa).
Tax Credits for Child Care.
Tax Credits for Macaroni Cheese and Tuna Casseroles.
Tax Credits for Disney Channel.
A Year's Supply of Paycheck Helper.
A 55-Gallon Drum of Scotch Guard.
A Real Vacation.
A Long Weekend.
A Three Hour Nap.
A Zero-Maintenance Roof.
Permanent No-Piercing Zone.
Automatic Curfew Child Retrieval System.
Discovery of an Underground Oil Well.
A Bottomless Flask.
An Automated Diaper Changer.
An Instantaneous Child Bedstand Glass of Water.
An Heretofore Unknown Rich Dead Uncle.
Multiple Lottery Wins.
On-Site Day Care.
On-Site Day Care (Employer Paid).
On-Site Day Care (Anyone Else Paid).
Day Care (Somewhere Cheap and/or Close).
30 Cc. of Thorazin Three Times a Day.
24-Hour On-Call Grandma
24-Hour On-Call Therapist.
24-Hour On-Call Bartender.
A Little League Coach Who Always Starts Your Child.
Platinum Card Paid by Anonymous Third Party.
Negative Interest Mortgage.
Fully Assembled Christmas Gifts.
Nickel Beer Night.
An Honest Mechanic.
Children Bored with Television.
Compiled by Will Durst, a San Francisco-based comic.