Leisure Overload? Nothing Doing.

A family gathers 'round the TV hearth in 1954, back when television stations actually went off the air late at night.
A family gathers 'round the TV hearth in 1954, back when television stations actually went off the air late at night. (Associated Press)

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

In 1930, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes published an essay called "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." Keynes surmised that the main problem of Americans today would be what to do with our copious leisure time.

Keynes figured productivity would surge (correct), wages would rise (of course), and people could do more in less time (yes). We'd wind up with all this time to hang around. This would lead to pool halls, Hummers and Hooters restaurants. I'm telling you, the man was uncanny.

Mathematically speaking, it was no problem to keep track of paid hours worked -- the average day was pegged at eight hours in 1937-- but could such things as work and chores and obligations and the absence of work be gauged? Could you quantify the full measure of the American life?

A fascinating notion. It presumes that number crunchers could slip a cool finger on the carotid artery of a nation by computing its cumulative work hours, the national time it takes to do the laundry, cook, clean, mow the yard and so on, and come up with a pulse that showed just how we spent our lives.

To figure this, they'd have people keep time-use diaries (down to 15-minute increments), look at census data and Bureau of Labor statistics, vacation time and so on. Track that data over decades, then throw it all in a computer. The results would show how much we worked and how much we played.

Fascinating.

Of course, it doesn't work.

There do happen to be two recent reports out -- mind-numbingly complex things -- that say Keynes was spot on. Americans' "total work" time, the measure of compensated labor and domestic chores, has decreased dramatically in the past 40 years, the report's authors say. By the narrowest definition of leisure -- time spent socializing, in active or passive entertainments -- the average American has nearly 34 hours of completely free time each week, as compared with 30.6 hours in 1965.

We have more goof-off time than ever before! Pop goes the champagne!

"Keynes got this one right," says Steven J. Davis, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"Leisure has gone up dramatically in the past 40 years no matter how you define 'leisure,' "says Erik Hurst, associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. He's co-author of "Measuring Trends in Leisure," one of the new research papers.

Hurst and fellow authors report working-age Americans (ages 21 to 65) have the equivalent of five to 10 extra weeks of leisure time each year, compared with 1965, thanks to better technology and shorter work hours. Most of it is in 20-, 30-minute chunks. People spend most of it watching television. A companion study, with a longer lens, says that Americans spend about one-third fewer hours at work today than they did in 1900.


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