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How we spend our time differently in a recession

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Today’s jobs report was an unhappy reminder that we’re still a distance away from regaining the jobs lost in the recession. Specifically, we’re 6.8 million jobs short of where we were four years ago. according to today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

When fewer Americans have jobs, what do they spend their new-found free time doing? Two studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research probe exactly that. Taken together, they come up with some pretty interesting and revealing results. A few key takeaways, before we dive in: Americans spend a little less time socializing, a lot more time sleeping, and become increasingly tuned in to political news.

Over the past few years we’ve shifted hours away from work and largely towards sleeping and watching television, a study titled “Time Use During Recessions” finds. The report looks at how our collective use of time has changed as the economy has dipped, including both the employed and unemployed in their data set.

Leisure time looks to have increased to take up about half of the hours previously devoted to working. The majority of new leisure time hours - 60 percent - is spent sleeping and watching television, while the other 40 percent go to eating, personal care and other activities. Socializing actually took a small downturn, with 1.2 fewer minutes per week spent interacting with others. And, as this chart shows, there was also a divide by gender in how much leisure time increased:

What else took the place of hours previous spent working? Time spent on education increased slightly, as did time spent job searching and on child care, compared to the years that preceded the recession (these study authors use 2006-2008 as their baseline).

One silver lining to all that extra television: it may increase political engagement. In a separate NBER paper, “Employment, Wages and Voter Turnout,” two economists find that a lower national level of wages correlates with higher voter turnout - with one catch. Turnout in gubernatorial and House elections does increase when wages are lower, but numbers in a presidential contest look to stay steady.  

What’s going on here? The study authors argue that economic downturns don’t necessarily mobilize “mad as hell” voters who want to vent at the ballot box. Instead, the key issue may be “information exposure,” how much voters know about a given election. While most Americans know at least something about the presidential election, it may be those with additional free time who learn about (and, ultimately, vote in) the races for the House and governor’s office.

“A previous literature on ‘economic voting’ tries to assess whether voters credit or blame political candidates for economic conditions,” the study authors write. “Our various results suggest that whether economic conditions affect voters’ assessments of candidate quality or not, labor market conditions also affect turnout by changing voters’ exposure to political information.”

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