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Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time

by John P. Robinson and Geoffrey C. Godbey


Using monitored time-diaries, John P. Robinson and Geoffrey C. Godbey suggest the ways citizens spend their time differs from the self-reports given to pollsters, pollsters claiming individuals have less free time. The authors suggest citizens, in general, have more free time than in the past, though the amount of free time varies among groups, especially age groups. Older individuals have much more free time than in the past. Robinson and Godbey attribute the problem to a particular victim mentality, a victim-of-time mentality. Much of the victim-of-time problem comes from believing unnecessary activities are necessary.


Citizens spend free time on activities they find unenjoyable, heavily into busy-ness and rotating the fields, moving from one banal interest to another with little vision and few imperatives. Misused freedoms and wishful thinking pass for accomplishments. Americans report their favorite work or house activity is playing with children; their favorite personal activity is sex; their favorite free time activity is active sports. Americans, however, spend a daily mean of a whopping five minutes playing with children; four minutes having sex, and ten minutes playing sports. No doubt there are many whose daily efforts in those activities are several times the mean, which means that most people spend a fraction of that puny mean on sex, sports, and children. I will go out on a strong limb and guess the mode for each of these three activities is zero minutes per day. Compare that to a mean of 129 minutes watching TV, 89 minutes traveling, 39 minutes preparing food, and 24 minutes shopping. The mean number of minutes spent at parties dropped, astonishingly, from 15 in 1965 to six in 1985. (So much for the party animal generation.)


In a finding that changed the velocity of a few eyebrows the authors find that employed women and employed men spend similar numbers of hours in “total productive activities”—family care time + paid work time + commute time—which contradicts media reports of work load disparities among men and women. Men spent a mean 14.5 hours on house and family work. Women spent 25.6 hours, but men made up the difference commuting and at work. The authors don’t include any range data. There may be large numbers of families with women doing a double shift along with large numbers of families with I’m-nothing-but-a-paycheck-to-her men.


Most of the increase in free time went to men 55 and over. In 1985 men aged 55 to 64 spent only 21.5 hours per week on paid work, mostly because of early retirements. In 1965 that age group worked longer hours than any other age group, about 38 hours a week. And most of that extra free time went into TV viewing. Between 1965 and 1995 TV viewing went up six hours per week. For many younger families, workloads increased.


The authors argue that we should engage in one task at a time, fully focusing on it, experiencing it. Multitasking activities that require mental effort deadens our experiences. The authors call doing too many tasks at once, doing tasks too quickly, and constantly rotating tasks "time deepening." Constantly rotating the crops, while putting little enthusiasm into them, is a recipe for dehumanization.


We look for activities to provide what is missing in our lives without pouring on the right types of efforts, avoiding activities that require serious commitment, more interested in constant novelty. The number of wants and "needs" increase. The authors conclude: Time should be an important value issue.


The fantastic tables in this work are more fascinating than the clunky text. The authors, unfortunately, decided to be vacation philosophers rather than moral philosophers. The authors oppose philosophies of passive leisure, yet they do not bring themselves to explicit moral philosophies. They prescribe active leisure--little improvement over passive leisure. The authors’ prescriptions for solving the paradoxes of hedonism and modern life are not empty, but are nowhere near good. The authors predict a massive decline in the number of hours worked, which may be true for leisure classes, but not for non-leisure classes. Finding ways to make work more personally and morally valuable is a bigger challenge for the future than finding ways to make leisure more purposeful. Many individuals are hell bent on trying to convince us that technologies that make us mentally and physically passive are good for us or that passivity is not really passivity, but the authors have little to say about harmful technologies.


The statistical means in Time for Life do not say enough about the distributions of groups. Many individuals think they are more pressed for time because they are more pressed for time, which does not show up here because early retirees and other leisure classes have a large impact on the averages. (Need more cowbell, er, distribution data.)


Some critics criticized this work for using unrepresentative samples, and for coming up with some questionable statistics, such as the large amount of time spent on needle point. (Need more needle point!) The amount of time spent on private or embarrassing activities might also be mistaken.


In 1965 busy individuals might have considered it civic duty to fill out time diaries. By 1985 they might not. I also do not remember seeing much mention of dropouts, something that would make a big difference in this type of research, though I probably was not looking hard enough. Worth skimming. 367p (H) 1997         


J.T. Fournier, last updated June 12, 2009


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