The easiest way to measure leisure is to take survey data on how many hours a week people spend at work and subtract. Since 1965, the number of hours the average American works for pay has not changed much. By this simple measure, then, leisure has also stayed the same.
But are we really working as much as ever?
”All time away from work is not equal,” Erik Hurst, an economist at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago, said in an interview. Some time off is actually just more work.
To put it in economic terms, we spend some time off the job in consumption (watching TV, hanging out with our friends, reading for pleasure) and some in production (cooking dinner, cleaning the house, doing household repairs). Some activities, like sleeping and eating, fall somewhere in between, while others, including child care and gardening, combine pleasure and production.
The difference is not just that we enjoy some activities and dislike others. It is that we could, in theory, pay someone else to do the production for us. A cook or a restaurant can make dinner, but nobody else can play golf or watch TV for you.
. . .
Americans are not, in fact, working as much as they used to. They are just getting paid for more of the work they do. Using several different definitions of leisure, Professor Hurst and Mark A. Aguiar, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, analyzed time-use surveys done from 1965 to 2003. Whether they defined leisure narrowly or broadly, they got a consistent result.
”Leisure time — measured in a variety of ways — has increased significantly between 1965 and 2003,” they write in ”Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time Over Five Decades,” a Boston Fed working paper. . . . Using the most restrictive definition, which includes only ”entertainment/social activities/relaxing” and ”active recreation,” the economists found that leisure had increased 5.1 hours a week, holding demographics like age constant. (Without that control, leisure has grown 4.6 hours.) Assuming a 40-hour work week, that is like adding six weeks of vacation — an enormous increase.
”I was surprised by the magnitude,” Mr. Aguiar said in an interview, though the general trend agrees with earlier research.
For the full commentary, see:
VIRGINIA POSTREL. "ECONOMIC SCENE; The Work You Do When You’re Not at Work." The New York Times (Thursday, February 23, 2006): C3.
A PDF of the NBER draft of the Aguiar and Hurst paper can be found at: