U.S. Workers Gain Leisure Time, Study Says Despite its label of the "no vacation-nation," leisure time in the United States has actually increased in the last 40 years, according to a new study. Men work less in the market than they used to. And women have gained leisure time, thanks to declines in work they do in the home.
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U.S. Workers Gain Leisure Time, Study Says

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U.S. Workers Gain Leisure Time, Study Says

U.S. Workers Gain Leisure Time, Study Says

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On Wednesdays we talk about the workplace. What with Labor Day coming up, it seemed like a good time to look at how much Americans work. A lot of Americans believe, as a recent report put it, that this is a no-vacation nation. But a report just out in The Quarterly Journal Of Economics finds otherwise.

Erik Hurst is the co-author of that report and he joined us from the University of Chicago to talk about it. Good morning.

Professor ERIK HURST (University of Chicago): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, your findings suggest we spend much less time on work than our parents did and you measure it back to four decades. But everyone is always saying we work harder than ever before. What's the data?

Prof. HURST: So the data we use is from time diaries collected by nationally represented surveys from the 1960s. There was one in mid-1960, 1975, 1985, 1993 and 2003, conducted by the Bureau of Labor, that actually asked people how they spend their days, and we just kind of summarized these surveys to try to track how people are changing the way they spend their days now relative to earlier decades.

MONTAGNE: Well, before we get to the details of what people said, give us the broad stroke. Generally speaking, what happens? What happens for men and then what has happened for women that they have more leisure time than their parents did 40 years ago?

Prof. HURST: For women, they work more in the market now. But what we add to this is we show that while women work more in the market, they work far less at home now than they did 40 years ago. Basically, women spend about 10 hours less per week on what we call home production - cooking and cleaning and ironing - than our mothers did 40 years ago. We get takeout food as opposed to cooking dinner. We have a dishwasher as opposed to doing the dishes by hand. So these time-saving devices in the home have allowed women to reduce the amount of time they spend on home production and allowing more free time for other things.

For men, the reason they have more leisure now is that they are just working less in the market. So basically men work less for paid employment now than they did 40 years ago, and that's a long-standing trend that labor economists have documented, not just me, but lots of economists have documented over the last 40 years. Basically, they watch a lot more TV now. They work a lot less now for paid employment.

MONTAGNE: I think anybody who might be critical or the least bit skeptical of this would have questions about measuring leisure time. It's hard to measure leisure time. I mean, isn't there a part of your leisure time that is work for some people?

Prof. HURST: There an inherent difficulty in measuring this, so we try to take the most agnostic approach, which is basically just creating very extremely narrow measures of leisure, which people will find very uncontroversial, like television watching or going to the movies. And then we start creating broader measures of leisure, then we have some of more of these subjective categories included in them. And then we show a range of estimates. So we have some on the lower side and some on the higher side. But the basic pattern is, regardless of which one of these you look at, there's still a substantial increase in leisure time.

MONTAGNE: If in fact Americans have more leisure time on average or we have more time than, say, our parents or grandparents did 40 years ago, why does everyone feel so overworked?

Prof. HURST: Well, I mean the same reason why people feel cash-strapped. We have far more money than our parents did 40 years ago. So if you look at standard of livings relative to the '60s, relative to 2003, you see huge growth in earnings of the average worker during this time period. Yet, if you ask people if they feel cash-strapped on average, they tend to. So anytime people feel constrained - in some sense, money is finite, time is finite; people feel stressed relative to their constraint.

My prediction was, if you asked our parents how much time-crunch they felt and how overworked they felt 40 years ago, they probably would have given the similar answers to today's generation.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Prof. HURST: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Erik Hurst is a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

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