Title: Busyness as Usual
Author(s): John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey
Publisher: Social Research
Topics: leisure time, perception of leisure time, changes in leisure time from 1965-1995
Methods: Literature review of the last 30 years of work on real and perceived time pressures in the United States. Main source of data is 24-hour recall time-diary data, collected in 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1995.
What it says: This literature review summarizes findings from different approaches to studies attempting to measure Americans’ time use, including studies that 24-hour use time-diaries (largely AHTUS) and estimated activity time data sets (GSS, SPPA, NCHS). Data indicates that Americans today have more free time than Americans in the 1960s (as working hours and hours spent on family, home, and personal care have decreased). According to the time diary studies, television is responsible for a huge chunk of free time, gobbling up more than 6 hours of the 8 hour/week increase in free time since 1965. (Time-estimate surveys such as the GSS indicate television viewing has remained relatively flat, though as the authors note, those surveys suffer from individuals’ poor abilities to accurately recall how they spend their time.) Time-use diaries and time-estimate surveys also show conflicting results in terms of Americans’ relationship to fitness, with the former indicating a moderate increase in hours spent exercising, and the latter showing decreased participation in an array of sports. None of the studies, however, indicate that Americans actually have less free time than they did thirty years ago — a finding that is consistent with similar studies conducted in other Western nations.
The studies also indicate a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who feel they are pressed for time, as well as an increase in the percentage of Americans who report stress between 1965 and 1995. Stress levels have declined since then.
What I think about it: This is a useful overview of studies on the time use of American adults, but it raises a lot of questions about how researchers define “free time” in the first place, and whether that definition is consistent across all of the studies included in the summary. Table 2 lists “paid work, family care, and personal care” as “non-free-time acts,” and activities like “church,” “fitness,” and “social events, etc” as “free-time activities.” There are a number of activities that fall into a gray area between those two categories. For example, would taking a children to a museum be considered family care or a social activity? Furthermore, how do researchers account for activities they perceive to be optional (i.e. attending church), but which individuals consider to be a duty or an obligation?
The summary also doesn’t say much about time use respondents. Are the majority of individuals involved in these studies working adults? What about non-working adults? The homeless? Non-English speakers?
What it all means: We can’t draw broad conclusions from this summary, particularly regarding low-SES populations. The two takeaways that seem clear to me are that television (and, more recently, the Internet) has had a pretty big impact on how people spend time, and that there is a sense of “time crunch” that affects all levels of society. (Note that the “yuppie kvetch” article indicates the crunch is greatest for people who have the highest incomes.) Complicating factors, to my mind, include the relationship between increased choice in how to spend time and the perceived “time crunch,” and our cultural fetishization of busyness. In terms of arts participation, I wonder whether some of the reasons people would once turn to cultural activities (a desire to encounter something new, or feel connected to community members) are now fulfilled more efficiently by other activities.