Following up my post on consumption and living standards in the US, there was a fair bit of discussion at CT of what’s been happening to leisure. Juliet Schor and others have argued that the long-term trend towards reduced hours of work and more leisure reversed some time in the 1970s, and people have been working harder since then. A study by Aguair and Hurst (the final QJE article is subscription-only, but I found a preliminary version here) has been widely quoted as proving the opposite (here, for example, by Tyler Cowen) and the abstract seems to support this interpretation, saying “We find that a dramatic increase in leisure time lies behind the relatively stable number of market hours worked between 1965 and 2003.”

However the data periods don’t exactly match up. It turns out that, using any of the definitions of leisure considered by Aguair and Hurst, the majority of the increase in leisure time took place between 1965 and 1975, and most measures show little change since 1985.

There’s an important gender/family dimension too. On Aguair and Hurst measures 1 and 2 (which exclude child care), leisure time for women peaked in 1985 and has declined since then, while leisure time for men has been pretty much stationary.

So that readers can make their own comparisons, I’ve extracted the relevant table, which is over the fold. I’d say it matches Schor’s story (increasing leisure until the late 70s followed by a decline) at least as well as that suggested by the authors (dramatic long-term increases in leisure)

There’s lots more data in the Aguiar and Hirst paper and one point worth noting is that the trend in the distribution of leisure time is the opposite of that in income. High income, high education people have experienced a significant decline in leisure relative to those with low income and low education. That somewhat offsets the growth in inequality I’ve been talking about. Also, combined with the gender pattern I already mentioned, it almost certainly means that educated women have, on average, less leisure than in the late 1970s.


17 thoughts on “Overworked?

  1. I’d suggest that the climate of fear exacerbated by Work Choices applies in Australia. An expanding enterprise can load up current stuff with more workload rather than hire, a static enterprise can avoid replacing departing staff. Few employees will risk stepping off the merry-go-round in case they can’t get back on. Add to that the presenteeism phenomenon whereby a flu ridden worker won’t take a sickie but infects everybody. I also believe some issues are now so complex that people should not be rushed; in the white collar arena for example mistakes seem to be commonplace.

  2. Re table: Is there a reason for switching from a 10 year time interval to an 8 year and then back to a 10 year interval?

  3. I am automatically disposed against an study that includes time spent on child care in a ‘leisure measure’. What do they mean by including ‘volunteering’ in that category too? Most of it is actually work. Did they make any attempt to control for forced leisure (unemployment)? The latter might explain the jump between 75 and 85.

  4. “What do they mean by including ‘volunteering’ in that category too? Most of it is actually work”
    I’m only willing to see this as work if children can also be seen as commoditees and hence traded etc. . Whilst it may not be fun at times (just like “leisure time” might not fun either), the idea that looking after your own kids is equivalent to the type of work you do for money devalues the idea of families. One could make the same argument for visiting your parents — not everyone likes that either, but it hardly should be considered work.

  5. Conrad, that’s a really funny idea. Why do we go to work for money? Answer, so we can pay for the goods that our families need to survive and be healthy, etc. Why do we work at cooking and cleaning or repairing the house? Answer, so that the goods we’ve bought with money can be converted into other goods or services that help the family to survive etc. It’s all work. If you don’t accept that housework is work, then paid work is not work either. Volunteer work mostly provides other essential services that people/communities need to survive in a healthy manner.

    Leisure needs to be defined as stuff we do that isn’t essential to our survival – watching TV, playing sport, birdwatching, etc.

  6. This was actually the thing that led me to suspect that a Tragedy of the Commons mechanism might be involved in the employment market. Here’s an excerpt from an essay of mine written some years ago, http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl/publicns.html#UNPUBART2, highlighting the crucial part that made me suspicious:-

    “In physics, one of the peaks of late 19th century work – perhaps the last before relativity and quantum physics – was van der Waal’s work on gasses. He tuned and he tweaked, he put in fudge factors to make the graphs work and then he went looking for reasons for the behaviour so that they weren’t fudged any more, and finally he got something that worked exactly, within the limits of experimental error.

    “Except for one thing. Over a huge promontory of the graph, the curves didn’t fit at all! In the end the reason turned up, and it explained phase changes – how water can move to steam or ice, and so on. It was happening exactly where the curves on the graph reversed their slope from negative to positive, and what was happening wasn’t a failure of the theory, just a failure to understand an aggregating mechanism, i.e. how the behaviour of small “pieces” of gas combined to give the behaviour of a larger volume of gas. Catastrophe theory provides a more general aggregating mechanism.

    “At school there was a simple experiment to illustrate this. You hooked up one gas supply with tubing to two Bunsen burners with the air sleeves closed and a soap film across the ends, then gradually blew bubbles. At first the two bubbles grew in step, which is just what you’d expect, but as they passed the hemisphere shape one would start shrinking while the other kept growing. The thing is that the pressure in a bubble isn’t directly related to its size but to its curvature, so it only increases to half way; after that it drops – the slope reverses. That means that after half way if one bubble is even slightly larger it lets in the gas at higher pressure from the other bubble, while before half way the smaller bubble accepted gas preferentially so they stayed in step.

    “That’s what was happening with van der Waal’s graphs. They weren’t directly predicting experiments with volumes of gas, only the individual pieces that collected together. Where the slope was negative just adding up their values worked, because discrepancies worked to eliminate themselves. But where the graphs went positive addition was the wrong way of combining the results.

    “This insight carried over into many other areas of physics, like treating the behaviour of magnets with the same theory that worked for phase change in gasses, or handling the change from subsonic to supersonic gas flow with a similar technique – the slope of a graph is changing sign there too.

    “Getting back to economics, many of these same pieces of underlying mathematics were transferred across to similar problem areas there. For instance there is a close parallel between the change of behaviour of subsonic gas flow to supersonic and the difference between ordinary inflation and hyperinflation – in each case the behaviour when the slope reverses means that downstream disturbances can’t signal upstream fast enough against the flow, so any effective feedback in the original flow gets broken.

    “There are other ways to use the phase change insight in economics. One is to go looking for paradoxical behaviour, where two different things are going on at once, then try to see if there is some underlying behaviour with a curve that describes it that is reversing. If so, there may be a phase change and there may be something we should do about it.

    “We do have an area where this may be happening. There is some empirical evidence that not only is the NAIRU, the non-accelerating inflation or “natural” rate of unemployment, rising around the world but also those people still in work are working harder – i.e. there is a bifurcation, a splitting into two simultaneous but different forms of behaviour. This rings alarm bells, because it is just the sort of thing one would expect with a phase change (and it’s linked to Chaos theory too). The evidence is different in different countries and at different times, but that is entirely consistent with being on different parts of the graphs and moving from contour to contour over time – “shifts”. (We deliberately plot the graphs so changes on slower timescales correspond to shifts from contour to contour, while individual curves correspond to rapid or easy changes – the most likely behaviours.) Unfortunately that destroys the predictive power, since so far the theory fits all scenarios, like Marxian economics, and we have to move beyond to get anything useful. Knowing what we now know about phase changes we look for some mechanism that could explain this – something that could cause a slope reversal – and then we look for separate evidence one way or the other as to whether this is really going on.”

    That’s not a proof that there is a Tragedy of the Commons mechanism, it’s just the thing that led me to look for a mechanism that might work this way. I checked it out separately, and I also found other people’s work that also supported it, e.g. the work of Professor Kim Swales of the University of Strathclyde, specifically this.

  7. Terje, judging from how much time some of us spend in blogworld, office work in 2007 can indeed be relatively leisurely.

    I know I spend most of my time at work bludging my @rse off.

  8. No I don’t accept that looking after your own kids or doing housework are work. If they were, at least for the first of these, people shouldn’t feel guilty if they had the money and paid someone else to do 100% of it, but they do. Similarly, if children are just equivalent to work, you shouldn’t feel any more guilt than you would if your employer went broke than if you happened to live in a pigsty and feed your children MacDonalds every day (since its just work anway — so why not minimize the amount you do? — its not like you can be sacked for doing it — DOCS cases excluded).
    If people really think that children and associated activaties are equivalent to paid work, then my reccomendation is that they find someone to buy them or at least enter into a contract to pay for all of the associated expenses associated with a life time of activities before having them. You could start a whole new market on EBay for trading children.

  9. “Volunteer work mostly provides other essential services that people/communities need to survive in a healthy manner”
    If you are talking about altruistic activities such as volunteering, then this is an even odder arguement than the ones to do with children that people bring up occasiaonly. If you don’t like doing unpaid altruistic activities like volunteering, then the rather simple solution to this is not to do them. No-one is going to stop you not doing them, and you won’t lose any money, since you were not paid any to start with anyway. I’m sure communities etc. will survive quite happily.

  10. Conrad, I suspect you of confusing ‘work’ with things we don’t enjoy doing. People face different incentives (including moral incentives) in all kinds of work which affect the amount of effort they put in and their enjoyment of the work. But the underlying motive – survival – is common to all of them. Enjoyment isn’t relevant to the definition of work or leisure.

  11. Conrad, work is an economic actiity, the root of economy is greek ‘oikonomos’ which is all about household actiity. households did not exist in that context without kids. raising kids can therefore easily be seen as work.

    further, i know that in my modern capitalist existance there is little expectation that i will be solely responsible for the support of my retired parents, but that expectation is still very real for many of my neighboures. Superannuatuion is a bit like having kids that don’t decide which home you go to. If effectivelly gather ing the resources for a comfy super is work then raising kids is just as valid a form of work, if a little archaic, tho only by a generation or two and only in our bit of the mod world.


  12. Dylwah, I realize. I was just arguing there is a qualitative difference between things like “work” I do voluntarily for myself/friends/family that doesn’t pay, and “work” I do for my workplace. Hence sticking one category of “work” into an economic survey and not another seems pretty reasonable to me. Alternatively, complaining that what I choose to do in my free time is actually work, when I voluntarily chose to do it, seems odd. In addition, arguments like “survival” are strange indeed. For example, if I grow big muscles in my leisure time, that could be seen as benefitting my survivial. Should I see that as work?
    Surely there must be some sort of deliniation somewhere, otherwise essentially anything I do can be considered work (even if no-one wants to pay me to do it). Using that logic, I can infer that people have children so that they can work and further the great economy. The only person pleased with that would be Mao.

  13. Conrad, you’re not getting it – unless you think that feeding the children three times a day is something you just do, IF you choose to, in your free time.

    Of course people don’t have children so they can work. Most people do understand, however, that there’s a lot of work involved in bringing them up. If it’s work for the full time nanny, why isn’t it work for mum and dad?

  14. If it’s work for the full time nanny, why isn’t it work for mum and dad?

    It’s work for both of course, but only employment for the nanny.

    You have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise as conrad points out, “working out” is “work”.

  15. Under John Howard Australia has had the ultimate humiliation and been included on the International Labour Organisation’s list of 25 countries with the worst labour regimes.

    His nasty Workchoices regime reminds them apparently of the old Soviet labour code – no real unions, no real choices and no real pay for your labours.

    If Howard thinks that the people of Australia are not intersted the onslaught of Workchoices on our pay and conditions he is quite wrong.

    Whilst I like many of us now are not in a Union and also like quite a number have a better education (thanks to Whitlam) and so am in higher paid work than my parents generation; I however no longer have any protection at work.

    Like many people in Australia I now have to work very long hours. It is not uncommon for my employer to expect me to work 50-55 hour weeks and I get no overtime pay. If I don’t agree the implied threat is that I will no longer have a job.

    Its time we got rid of politicians like John Howard and his 1950ies class warfare mindset and got a PM with the ability to serve an Australia living in the fastest changing region in the world, East Asia. Let us bring in 21st century cooperative solutions into our workplaces not just recyle the policies of a discredited dictatorship.

    I for one will be voting for the ALP – lower house and the greens – Senate at the coming election.

    Lets get rid of the mean little man once and for all!

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