Newsreal: What time bind?

A new 30-year study finds that Americans have all the time in the world.

Published June 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

contradicting reports that we are a nation of frenzied, overworked zombies, a new book, "Time For Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time," offers data that shows Americans actually have plenty of time on their hands. The authors, Geoffrey Godbey and John Robinson, studied the daily routines of 10,000 Americans from different backgrounds over a 30-year period and found that on average, Americans today have 40 free hours a week -- more than at any other time in the past three decades.

Most of our free time actually consists of stolen moments, windows of time sandwiched between other activities, the authors say. So what are we doing with our open hours? Sitting in front of the tube, most likely. According to the study, Americans spend 15 of their 40 free hours per week watching TV -- much more than we spend socializing (6.7 hours), reading (2.8 hours) or participating in religious activities (.9 hours).

Godbey and Robinson's conclusions fly in the face of other well-known books on work and leisure such as Juliet Schor's "The Overworked American" and the recent "The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work," by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Salon recently spoke with Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State University.

Government findings and the conclusions of authors like Arlie Hochschild say the opposite of what you're saying -- that Americans have much less time for rest and relaxation, that we are working harder than ever.

I read Hochschild's most recent book and she does what is sometimes called "qualitative research" -- that is, she's taken a single location and a single company and then said, "Here's the way it is." She tends to believe people if they tell her they work 60 hours a week -- then she writes in the book, "They worked 60 hours a week." We would want to measure this, because people's estimation of what they do, how much time they spend with things, tends to be highly inaccurate.

The first time I was asked how much time I spent watching TV, I said, "Hey, I'm a professor, I don't watch much TV." I kept a diary and found I watch 18 hours a week. But that's not what I would have told someone. Several years ago I did a study in which we asked people how many times in the last year they used the gym they belong to. Then we checked the sign-in systems at the clubs and found that half of our respondents overestimated their use by more than 100 percent. They think to themselves, "I'm the kind of person who does work out. I don't watch soap operas and I don't sit and suck beer and watch the NBA playoffs. That's not me, man."

Your study concluded that we are spending more time on leisure activities, whereas we tend to think that our lives are becoming busier as the years pass by. A lot of people will look at the study and say, "How can that be?"

We think the pace of life has sped up tremendously. When we ask people about feeling rushed, over a third of the population say they always feel rushed, which is fairly sad. However, time has many qualities. Duration is one and tempo is one. You can work for shorter periods but work under great stress and work very quickly. The Italians work pretty long hours and they work pretty slowly. These are different things and we think there's a huge problem in terms of pace.

When you started out, did you think that your study would confirm what everyone seems to feel -- that there are just not enough hours in a day to do what we need to do?

We had no hypothesis, we were not setting out to prove something. What's been amazing to us is that several other studies reported in American Demographics come up with the same numbers. A Canadian study finds no increase in work and an average of 42 hours of free time per week. So we're not nut-case professors. For a while, we were starting to think that we were.

What is leisure studies?

There are two parts. The first examines what people do during their free time, how it affects the economy, how it affects their health and what consequences it has for society. The second part trains people who work for municipal recreation park departments, theme parks, national parks, Walt Disney -- various types of commercial recreation operations. Leisure studies is concerned with life away from work -- organized forms of recreation, play, leisure, sport, culture. There are about 300 leisure studies curriculums in North America.

Why is it important to study leisure?

I know that "leisure studies" sounds funny, but on the other hand, so does solid waste management. It happens that solid waste management is pretty important. If no one managed the solid waste in your house or apartment you would begin to think it was important. Two-thirds of the American public says that leisure is more important, or as important as, their work. The astounding thing now is that we're finally getting some respect and attention, because the implications of what people do during their free time for health, and particularly for containing health-care costs, turn out to be extraordinarily important. So whether people exercise mind, body and talent during their free time or whether they veg out ends up being fairly important -- it affects Medicare, Medicaid and other public policy programs.

What kind of time diaries did people keep for this project?

The first time-diary study was done in 1965. Subsequent studies were done in '75, '85 and '95. One of the unique things about this project is that it gives us a basis to make sound judgments because this is what people tell us they do, not what we think they do. We did not ask time estimate questions like, "How often do you work out?" because they usually produce spurious results. For example, we ask people to estimate how much time they worked during a week, then we check their time diary; they usually overestimate between one and seven hours per week, because working hard and being busy is a status symbol in our culture right now.

Your study found that people are watching a lot of television. If TVs were abolished tomorrow, what would we do instead?

Socialize more is one answer -- visit other people, talk to other people. You know, it's easy to knock TV. But we find that the increases in free time since 1965 -- about five or six hours a week -- have been devoted to watching television. Part of the reason for that is that of the 40 hours of free time per week Americans average, 25 occur on weekdays and they come in small increments or chunks that are tailor-made for watching television.

People tell us that what they really want is a day of free time, so they can go to the lake or something. What they get are short bursts, which are convenient for watching television.

In these short bursts, do people really have time to unwind?

Actually, the bursts add up to a lot of time. People are much more rushed in our society than they were in 1965. What you're asking is a great question, because even though it is free time, people still sit and say: "What's next? What should I be doing?" So in that sense, it is not a deeply refreshing activity.

Did your findings uncover a particular group of people who were not watching a lot of TV?

I can't answer that in a systematic way. What I can tell you, because I've done about 50 radio talk shows in the last two weeks and talked to a lot of people, is that many people are saying, "Look, I got rid of my TV," or "I'm on a TV diet." They've started reacting against it, instead of automatically flipping it on when they get home or walk into the room. So there seems to be increasing awareness that TV can be a negative presence. In the survey we also found that a lot of people don't think of television as free time.

Why not?

We can't get a straight answer from them. They say, "Well it's not really free time." And we say, "Well is someone making you watch it?" People consider TV as a totally separate thing. But since it takes up 40 percent of people's free time, it's a fairly important category.

Americans spent less than an hour a week of their leisure time, on average, participating in cultural or religious activities. How does that compare with 30 years ago?

In survey after survey, American say that religion is very important to them. But they spend about nine-tenths of one hour per week with it, so it may be important but it's not a very time-consuming behavior. The question is, if it's so important, why is it such a tiny -- less than an hour a week -- percentage of a person's week?

Has the amount of time we spend with religion fallen with the rise in watching TV?

Not really. People didn't spend much time with religion 30 years ago, though women spent a little more time than men. We think part of that is that women have had less freedom to use their leisure time in the ways they wanted. One of the places they could meet and get out of the house was a church or synagogue.

Does sex count as free time? Was there a sex category in your study?

One of the few things that people will not tell you about in a time diary is sexual behavior. They will get around drug use by saying, "Partying at somebody's apartment with friends." But they generally will not tell you about sex. One of the amazing things we found in the book is that we have a half an hour on average per week unaccounted for in people's reports. A huge study has just come out on human sexual behavior that we believe has found a way to accurately measure sex. It involves multiple contacts with the same person -- in effect gaining their trust and insuring them of their anonymity. And they find that the average American between the ages of 18 and 65 devotes about a half an hour a week to sexual activity. That says nothing about incidents of sexual intercourse, that simply says "time devoted." And that's exactly the amount of time we have unaccounted for in our diaries.

Years ago, an economist who studies this said that our society is more promiscuous not because our values have changed, but because our society has sped up so much, the only kind of intimacy you can have quickly is sexual. You can't have spiritual intimacy. It takes years to know the person's hopes and dreams and values and beliefs. So what can happen quick?

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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