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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press The United States Hugely Lags in Leisure Time

The United States Hugely Lags in Leisure Time

Friday, 08 February 2013 06:27

The Post has an article implying that many more people are opting for leisure in the United States than in the past and that this fact could even explain income inequallity. Neither of these assertions is very plausible. The United States has seen a much smaller reduction in work time over the last three decades than any other wealthy countries. Furthermore, countries that have seen steeper reductions in work time have seen much smaller increases in inequality. 

Comments (12)Add Comment
How Stupid Can a Journalist Be in One Paragraph?
written by Last Mover, February 08, 2013 6:25
From WaPo:

Isn’t that a definition of success, the ability to do a little frittering? Does it speak to possible job-sharing or other arrangements as a way to tackle unemployment? If you could be assured of a) a livable income and b) a livable retirement, would you c) be willing to earn less and work less so someone else could earn and work a bit more?

So involuntary unemployment doesn't really exist because of all those workers who chose to work less and make room for others to work by not crowding them out?

And this act of gratitude towards the unemployed by employed workers choosing to work less for more leisure was also one of self interest to be less equal economically on the income scale?
written by dick c, February 08, 2013 7:42
I'm reminded of someone I knew who would interrupt an employee and say, "Hey, why don't you take a break... and work on this."
One man's excess profits, another man's obligatory leisure
written by Rachel, February 08, 2013 8:22

All sorts of abuses can increase inequaity and the "leisure" of straitened circumstances. For instance, this is what happens when we train too few doctors. The doctors get to work very hard (for very big bucks), while in the firms that have to cut back employees because of high health costs, there's more leisure. (Worse health, but more leisure.)

And of course Wall Street chicanery has meant all sorts of worthless but profitable activity for financiers, while it has pushed huge quantities of other people into unemployment, that is, cold and dreary leisure.

But the Post chooses not to acknowledge the chicanery or the medical monopoly.
was it really that bad?
written by Jennifer, February 08, 2013 8:49
Ok the pass at income distribution was stupid, and clearly not backed up by any economic theory. And you could read the article as some kind of placating-the-masses by-being-happy-you-are-working-less. But the idea of embracing leisure time as something positive and promoting quality-of-life, which I think was the author's main point, is not bad. We are the worst of the developed countries when it comes to time off, is it such bad idea to, in a kind of indirect way, push for more?
hard to compare mandated leisure with opting for leisure...
written by pete, February 08, 2013 11:37
These are not market outcomes in Europe, they state controlled maximum work-weeks there. Unions have much more sway in government. If they had unconstrained labor markets folks might indeed work longer. Example here is the multi job person, which will increase as the new health care law forces firms to reduce hours.
Oh, THAT Federal Reserve study?
written by Sandwichman, February 08, 2013 12:18
"Federal Reserve studies from a few years ago documented a sharp jump in U.S. leisure time between the 1960s and the early 2000s..."

Had me stumped there for a moment. The 2006 Federal Reserve study in question, "Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades" was laughably fraught with peculiar interpretative and data quality issues. Here's what I wrote at the time:

There’s only one small problem with Aguiar and Hurst’s truefactproof: it’s all a question of judgment and data quality. The authors at least have the integrity to say so in their conclusions, even if their abstract hypes the extent to which their interpretation “documents” what they suppose it does.

Page 30: “Any definition that distinguishes “leisure” from “work” is a matter of judgment.” Check.

Page 33: “The ability to examine different patterns in time use over four decades hinges critically on the quality of data within each of the time?use surveys.” Check.

Let’s start with data quality, since that’s no doubt the last thing that would occur to a booster like Mr. Worstall. Aguiar and Hurst compared data from five surveys, conducted by three different organizations over the course of nearly 40 years — in 1965, 1975, 1985, 1993 and 2003. Just to give some sense of the subtlety of what’s involved in such an exercise, the 1965 survey consisted of interviews with 2,001 individuals, 776 of whom were from Jackson, Michigan.

Now, I’m sure Jackson, Michigan is a wonderful place to conduct a survey. But whether a survey conducted there is comparable with one that is nationally representative is another matter. Also, it turns out that the 1965 sample included only 17 non-working men. You can weight your demographic categories all you want, but you’ll never be able to weight a very small, unrepresentative sample into a representative one. Garbage in, garbage out.

One does have to admire the daring with which the researchers benchmarked their apple, orange, peach, pear and banana comparisons, though. They benchmarked the market work reports from the surveys to market work data in larger studies. In other words, the results of these surveys were fairly robust on questions that required much less of a subjective judgment. Cool. And unpersuasive.

Speaking of judgments, how does one deal with the fact that time spent traveling to an activity is included in the activity? For example, driving to Mickey D’s for a happy meal counts as leisure, while driving to the store to shop for groceries would be non-market work. Notice the difference? I didn’t think so.

Caring for ill or elderly family members is, of course, a leisure activity because it would be too complicated to count it otherwise. Ditto for child care. Likewise, watching TV probably accounts for a sizable chunk of the increased leisure of those less-educated adults who have been especially blessed with increased leisure over the past 40 years. Three cheers for TV! It sets the underemployed, on-call, contract, just-in-time, precarious, contingent workers free!

Knowing what's good for you
written by David, February 08, 2013 2:27
written by pete, February 08, 2013 12:37
These are not market outcomes in Europe, they state controlled maximum work-weeks there. Unions have much more sway in government. If they had unconstrained labor markets folks might indeed work longer

Quite debatable. Ad hoc evidence here, but my norwegian relatives think the US is insane as far as work hours go (given that the US is very wealthy still). My relatives work hard, don't misunderstand. But they also consider taking care of and educating their kids part of their social obligation and staying in shape, the same. The question is: when do you have enough money? In the US, the answer seems to be "never."
The wheel of assholic stupidity goes round & round !
written by H-Bob, February 08, 2013 3:19
Let's not forget that Hayek blamed unemployment in 1920s-30s Germany on those lazy Germans !
written by urban legend, February 08, 2013 3:31
In 2000, there were 3.2 million people who had only part-time work who wanted to work more in a full-time job. Today there are 8 million who want to work more than they currently have the opportunity to do. When there were opportunities for about 94% of the working age public to take full-time jobs, they damn-well took them despite whatever leisure time they allegedly wanted.

So how is this consistent with more people wanting more leisure time. The claim is a joke which really ought to be treated as a joke -- and a disgusting, insulting one at that. Casey Mulligan, a prime promoter of this disgusting insult, deserves to be treated as an intellectual outcast rather than being granted a prominent platform with the paper of record.
OECD data on this topic
written by David, February 08, 2013 5:05
http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex...e-balance/ Scroll your cursor over the graphs for details, and there is a country by country breakdown, too.
written by urban legend [ed.: in his own mind?], February 08, 2013 4:31

Don't be silly. The unemployed clearly don't need leisure time, they need jobs, hopefully jobs where they aren't required to work 50 hours or more per week 10.86% of US workers (15% of male US workers) work 50 hours per week or more. Barely 1% of the Swedes work that many hours. Now, the average Swedish income is lower than US because of this, but they rank higher in 'life satisfaction.'

Still, this picture from FRED is intriquing:
I wonder how much of this downward trend is due to employers keeping employees' hours low so as to avoid paying the benefits a full-time employee would command?
that little essay was actually stupid as well as insulting
written by watermelonpunch, February 09, 2013 2:08
I vote to nominate Howard Schneider for the Red Forman Memorial Dumb-Ass Award.

Neither of these assertions is very plausible.

Probably because they're mutually illogical.

a) who at the low end of income has the luxury of opting for more leisure?

b) rich people often make money just having someone else move money around - lazing around doesn't seem to be a financially damaging choice for THEM

c) a lot of people have extra so-called "leisure time", not because they're choosing it, but because
written by sglover, February 09, 2013 1:48
WaPo management and editorial staff is long, long overdue for the kind of "leisure" they're yammering about...

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.