Where Did All the Leisure Go?

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While leisure per capita has varied over the last 105 years and has exhibited some low frequency movements, it is the same now as it was 105 years ago.

Considering rising business productivity and the spread of labor saving household appliances, Americans today must have far more leisure than their counterparts in 1900, right? Well, maybe not. It depends on how you measure work and leisure and which sectors of the population are included in the analysis.

In A Century of Work and Leisure (NBER Working Paper No. 12264), Valerie Ramey and Neville Francis take a fresh look at work versus leisure trends through the twentieth century. They conclude that some 70 percent of the decline in hours worked has been offset by an increase in hours spent in school. Further, contrary to conventional wisdom, average hours spent in "home production" - that is, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and the like - are actually slightly higher now than they were in the early part of the last century. Meanwhile, leisure per capita is approximately the same now as it was in 1900.

Some busy couples, with both spouses working, may not find these findings so surprising. But they would likely be a surprise to the famed British economist, John Maynard Keynes, who predicted in a 1930 essay -- "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" -- that rising productivity would result in a large increase in leisure during the next hundred years. And, he speculated that the central problem for humanity would be using its abundant leisure time in a meaningful way.

Several studies do support the Keynes' forecast. For instance, Maddison shows that hours worked per employed person in the United States have fallen from around 2,700 a year to almost 1,600 a year in the last 105 years. But Ramey and Francis regard such studies as telling only part of the story, since they omit changes in labor force participation rates and in non-leisure activities. They argue that their study involves "more comprehensive and better measurements of hours of non-leisure time and the potential workforce."

For example, rather than using the "working age" population -- that is the civilian non-institutional (not in prison or otherwise incarcerated) population aged 16 and over -- Ramey and Francis use the total population in most of their study. That's because the restrictions on child labor have changed so much over the last hundred years. Children were important workers on family farms early last century; that explains why school vacations, even today, are long and in the summer. In 1910, the Census showed that 25 percent of male children aged 10 to 15 were employed.

"To the extent that the representative household cares about all of its members, interactions between different age groups may be important for understanding trends in adult leisure," Ramey and Francis add. Further, the fraction of the population aged 65 and over has risen from 4 percent in 1900 to more than 12 percent in 2000. That too has an impact on hours of leisure.

The authors also regard as relevant the hours of work of government employees (teachers, civil servants, and so on), the time spent commuting to and from work, the time spent in formal education, and the time spent in home production. They use surveys asking individuals to rate their enjoyment of various activities and classify as leisure those with the highest enjoyment scores, including sex, playing sports, playing with or reading to the kids, art, music, movies, sleep, reading, recreational travel, and so on -- all activities that give direct enjoyment. They classify as work baby care, gardening, a second job, cooking, basic child care, care of other adults, doing homework, pet care, housework, grocery shopping, home repair, paying bills, laundry, yard work, and so on.

The authors admit that there is a "degree of imprecision" in some of their estimates, especially for the early part of the last century and for home production. For instance, they include hours worked by sole proprietors and their unpaid family members working with them. The authors assume, too, that commuting time in the early part of the twentieth century was the same as later in the century -- that is, about 10 percent of total hours worked, since in those early days most people worked on Saturdays.

Hours spent on education have risen, of course, as attendance in secondary schools has become the standard. Over the century, school hours rose from 330 per year to almost 900 per year for those ages 5 to 22.

In looking at housework, the authors rely on a host of studies. They note that early in the last century, "Having clean clothes, clean dishes, a clean house, and well-cared for children was just another luxury the poor could not afford." For the poor, many meals consisted of simple, unheated foods. Working-class families often could not afford the fuel to cook. The authors also quote Betty Friedan, writing in her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique: "housewifery expands to fill the time available." Labor saving appliances were used to help bring about a revolution in sanitation, cleanliness, and better nutrition. Also, educated parents spend more time with their children.

The surprising conclusion here is: "While leisure per capita has varied over the last 105 years and has exhibited some low frequency movements, it is the same now as it was 105 years ago.

-- David R. Francis