Field Notes

In 1990, when Juliet Schor began researching how much time Americans spend working, it was hard to imagine a sleepier topic. Labor economists believed the question long settled: Economic growth and labor-saving technology were gradually ushering Americans into an arcadia of ever-increasing leisure. But Schor's work dealt a blow to that consensus. When The Overworked American (Basic) appeared in 1992, with its explosive finding that the average American was working a full month more a year than in 1969, Schor found herself the closest a Harvard economist can come to being a national sensation. Soon she was returning calls from The New York Times and Newsweek. Even the Weekly World News did a story. The book quickly became a national best-seller. The University of Chicago made it required reading in its undergraduate core curriculum.

And then in May 1997, the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild added her own contribution to the overwork hypothesis. Her book, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home & Home Becomes Work (Metropolitan), was promptly splashed on the covers of Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and U.S. News and World Report. (Hochschild found the latter's coverage so sensationalist that she professed to be "horrified" in a letter to the editor.) In academe, time is now anything but a sleepy subject--and, if these scholars are right, anything but available to the rest of us.

Unnoticed by the indignant overworked, however, was another book published at the same time as Hochschild's: Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (Penn State), by University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson and Penn State professor of leisure studies Geoffrey Godbey. With considerable aplomb, it threatens to force the overwork thesis into retirement. The book begins with the authors' observation that "our counterintuitive findings have sometimes made us feel like the isolated boy who dared to point out that the emperor...was wearing no clothes." It goes on to declare that, contra Schor and Hochschild, the average American enjoys an hour more free time per day now than in the 1960s.

What gives? This is one cold war you can blame on détente. In graduate school at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s, co-author Robinson helped launch the first international social survey to go behind the Iron Curtain. Time use was chosen as the survey's focus; among other advantages, time was the most politically neutral subject anyone could think of. The next step was to devise the most reliable methodology for soliciting data. So the Michigan sociologists distributed "time diaries," in which subjects in twelve countries--including 1,244 individuals in the United States--recorded their every movement over the course of a single day in 1965. Thus began Robinson's long and productive career in time studies. In 1975, he administered an improved time-use survey to 2,406 Americans. Ten years later, he collected 5,358 more time diaries.

Over the years, time diaries have proved especially adept at revealing differences between how people spend their time and how they think they spend it. Most particularly, they suggest that people routinely overestimate the amount of time they devote to a given activity--work, for example. In fact, Robinson and Godbey claim, the time diaries show that in nearly every conceivable demographic group Americans have more leisure time on their hands than ever before. (Those with graduate educations, take note, are practically the only exceptions.) To bolster their case, they present some 31 tables and 19 appendices in the 367 dense pages of their book.

If Schor arrived at different results, it's partly because she used different data: Her numbers on working hours come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which usually relies on asking people how much they worked in the previous week--rather than on time cards or time diaries. Schor readily acknowledges that time diaries represent an improvement in certain respects over Labor Department data; she herself used Robinson's time diaries to estimate the hours spent by women on housework. "But with time diaries," she argues, "you're giving up a consistent representative sample over longer periods of time." She argues that the decline in work hours Robinson found between 1965 and 1975 is due to the biased character of his 1965 sample group, which, in order to match those of the other participating countries, restricted itself to urban families in which the head of the household was employed. As a result, she says, the sample was "whiter, more affluent, and more employed than the actual population." Schor points out that between 1975 and 1985, when Robinson's sample base was more representative, he found little change in the number of working hours. During this very period, adds Schor, "involuntary underemployment" was becoming an important structural feature in the U.S. economy, rendering the concept of more free time a cruel misnomer for many. "His whole story is about a ten-year period and a statistical artifact!" she cries in exasperation.

Unruffled, Robinson replies that the discrepancies between his earlier and later samples are more apparent than real--that, for example, there are no noticeable differences in leisure time between blacks and whites. He says he controls for underemployment to make sure that a lack of work is not misconstrued as leisure. And he adds, "We're beginning to get some stuff out on the 1990s data, and we find pretty much a continuation of trends that we found earlier."

Hochschild's central objection to Time for Life is simpler. "People who hang in for highly time-consuming time diaries," she says, are precisely those who have the most time on their hands--a sampling bias if there ever was one. But Time for Life counters with one of its most fascinating claims: Much the way the controversial Sex in America survey of a few years ago discovered that masturbation was more frequent among those who had plenty of sexual intercourse, Robinson and Godbey report that the more busy people are the more likely they are to take on additional activities.

Time for Life is littered with such ironies and paradoxes. Indeed, if its findings are correct, the volume should force sociologists to view time's qualities--it overlaps, it stretches, it contracts, it disappears--with the same wonder as theoretical physicists. It will charge them with explaining, for one thing, why Americans feel more rushed than ever before, even though their free time supposedly has increased.

So how do we know who's right? How do you factor the time taken out of a salaryman's ten-hour day for a quick jaunt to the corner newsstand or a leisurely lunch? Should the scholarly chrononaut make a statistical correction for downturns in the business cycle, when wageworkers are vulnerable to layoffs and decreased overtime? Schor gives the business cycle paramount importance in her calculations, while Robinson and Godbey claim it exerts little influence on overall time patterns. Schor counts the hours officially spent at work (9 to 5, for example), while the time diarists have no problem counting gossip sessions around the watercooler as leisure time. Ordinary Americans may be finding time for work, or they may be finding time for leisure. We won't know which until sociologists agree on how to find time in the first place.


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