Recession Time Survey: 30% of Foregone Work Hours Spent on Sleep, Watching TV


Even after a decent jobs report earlier this month, unemployment is still over 9%. The underemployment rate? That’s 16%, and includes part-time workers who’d rather be full-time, plus people who’ve simply stopped looking for a job. So what are we doing with all that extra free time?

A new study by economists from Princeton and the University of Chicago breaks it down. The bulk of foregone market work time during the recent recession, they say, is spent on leisure.

Here’s the abstract:

We use data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), covering both the recent recession and the pre-recessionary period, to explore how foregone market work hours are allocated to other activities over the business cycle. Given the short time series, it is hard to distinguish business cycle effects from low frequency trends by simply comparing time spent on a given category prior to the recession with time spent on that category during the recession. Instead, we identify the business cycle effects on time use using cross state variation with respect to the severity of the recessions. We find that roughly 30% to 40% of the foregone market work hours are allocated to increased home production. Additionally, 30% of the foregone hours are allocated to increased sleep time and increased television watching. Other leisure activities absorb 20% of the foregone market work hours. We use our evidence from the ATUS to calibrate and test the predictions of workhorse macroeconomic models with home production. We show that the quantitative implications of these models regarding the allocation of time over the business cycle matches reasonably well the actual behavior of households.

Between 2007 and 2010, total market work fell from 32.90 hours per week to 30.14 hours per week for the average individual in the sample. The 8.38% decline in work hours for the sample is close to the 8.06% decline in work hours as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most of the decrease of market work occurred between 2008 and 2010.

Here’s a breakdown of where the foregone work hours are being allocated:

  • 20% to sleeping.
  • 15% to “other leisure,” including listening to music and being on the computer, exercising and recreation, and hobbies such as arts, collecting, writing.
  • 13% to core home production activities (cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.)
  • 12% to watching TV.
  • 12% to time investments in own health care, own education, and civic activities.
  • 8% to increased shopping.
  • 7% to home maintenance and repair.
  • 6% to child care.
  • 4% to the care of other older adults.
  • 1% of the foregone market work hours are allocated to job search.

Though the authors didn’t compute standard errors for comparisons of men and women (so they may not be statistically significant), some interesting gender differences do pop out of the data. While women allocated 13% of their foregone work hours to watching  TV, men allocated 19%. Women allocated 24% of lost work hours to sleeping, while men allocated 12%.

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  1. Mike B says:

    More sleep is not entirely a bad thing as American workers are notoriously sleep deprived.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1
  2. James says:

    I’m surprised that there’s no category for recreation – hiking, biking, and all those other things that cost virtually nothing. I know that’s where most of my increased free time went, when I’ve been between jobs.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  3. BL1Y says:

    It would be interesting to compare the numbers for people recently out of work, and the long term unemployed.

    It’s easy to get burned out sending countless applications to jobs without getting so much as a form rejection letter in response. And, after your initial job search, it doesn’t really take that much time to look at the one new job posted each week.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
  4. Joshua Northey says:

    The 1% to job search tracks my experience with the unemployed very closely. I have known a few people who were long term unemployed during the current downturn, and almost all of them magically found a job as soon as they were well and truly broke.

    While they were still coasting off savings/unemployment…well they would pick at the job listings and keep their standards unrealistically high. Once they started missing rent and things though suddenly they go from 1 application a week to several a day.

    And what do you know they find a job in no time. Keep in mind I am talking mostly about people with at least some college. I think the job market is legitimately dificult for some with low skill levels.

    For those with higher skill levels though most of what I have seen is sticky wages specifically “I am not taking a worse job for less money then I was making 18 months ago! I am broke, I need more money.”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 3
    • BL1Y says:

      As one of the unemployeds (I do some freelance work, but it’s not frequent enough for me to even consider myself working part time), I know I probably could get a job right now if I wanted to.

      The reason people put off really trying to get a job until they’re down to their last breadcrumbs is because work sucks. I know it, you know it, we all know. Work is the suckiest suck that ever sucked a suck.

      I paid in to the system when I was working, so I don’t feel bad about getting some of my money back, and if I can put off folding shirts at the Gap for a few more months, why wouldn’t I?

      I don’t spend much time watching TV (usually just Daily Show and Colbert, and then Breaking Bad, True Blood, and Entourage on Sunday nights), and much of my day is spent working on creating a business (legal industry news and entertainment website). I have a once in a lifetime shot at avoiding the Dilbertian nightmare that’s consumed much of our nation, and I’m going to hang on until the very end.

      As for people holding out unrealistically high expectations for jobs that pay as much as their last one, I’m not sure how true that is. I’m holding out for a job that doesn’t make me want to kill myself, but I’m certainly not holding out for money. When I was freshly unemployed, yes, I had a mindset of “well, I supposed I could take a 20% pay cut and that wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Since then, I’ve applied to positions that would be an 80% pay cut.

      For learned professionals, there is also question of whether taking an unskilled position hurts your chances of rejoining the profession. Being unemployed is already a red letter on your resume, but might having a menial job be even worse? It would be interesting to see some research on this, whether people who hold out are more likely to get back into their desired profession than people who take the first coffee-pouring gig that comes their way. You hear me Freakonomics?! Look into that! There’s probably a whole book’s worth of material on economics of a bad economy.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 8
      • robyn ann goldstein says:

        I have been formally unemployed for a year and I have never been busier doing research , writing, taking care of family. Nothing like unemployment for figuring out how to start up a business. Applied for one university teaching job and realized that without a recently published article I am cooked. So I can appreciate your holding on til something “good” comes along. I would not worry about hurting your chances …., the right employer will treat you with dignity and respect. Or maybe, you will be one yourself and can do unto others as you would wish them to have treated you. Pass it on !

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      • Enter your name says:

        You did NOT “pay into the system”. Unemployment taxes are paid 100% by the employER, not by the employEE. None of it was “your money”.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6
      • darlann1 says:

        Amen brother! I agree that “work is the suckiest suck that ever sucked a suck”! Especially when one feels they are forced to work doing things they do not care for. We have got to learn how to follow our passion and figure out how it can also pay the bills!!
        I am also holding out for a job that I will enjoy and feel like I am making a difference, rather than a Dilbert nightmare! If I had a nickel for every time I and my previous co-workers joked about how our current work situation was a Dilbert cartoon in the making, I’d be rich and answering this blog from my yacht.
        I would also like to know if taking an unskilled position would hurt my chances of rejoining my profession. Having been a former Manager, I can absolutely say that a future employer will question why I am now serving coffee rather than running a help desk. A coffee gig might pay a few bills but if I really want to make a living, I need to be somewhere around the same level I was previously. Did the professionals returning to work after unemployment ran out go back to their profession or jump into a tiger suit waving a sign on the corner of a street? Come on Freakonomics, show us what employers really want!
        Personally, I have spent my extra time attending school for my BA in Business Administration while on the side opening my Mosaic art business. Let me tell you, I haven’t worked so hard in many years, and I need the extra sleep!

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    • Mike B says:

      A large portion of the unemployed are made from formerly “skilled” persons who had job functions that have since been outsourced, automated or outright eliminated. These are things like sales, marketing, communications, HR, etc. Basically overhead positions that don’t had real value to the good or service a company provides, however positions that until recently required a career track individual with either a lot of experience or a college degree. These are the people who are have the worst situation because they are skilled, but not in anything the market demands. It is often too late in their life to retrain themselves, but taking an unskilled job would not only be unpleasant and low paying, but completely kill the sort of quality of life they had grown to expect. In fact they would probably not be a good fit for any sort of “cog” job after having spent years applying their skills and knowledge to somewhat challenging tasks.

      I don’t know what the solution is. Some can re-train, others can find low paying jobs that approximated their former work environment and some segment can try for Plan C by starting their own business or being self-employed.

      The key is to always keep doing something either through self improvement (classes, training, obtaining certifications and passing exams), self-employment or self-serving volunteerism. You have to have somewhere to go in the morning even if that happens to be picking up cans for nickles.

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      • rick says:

        I agree with almost every thing except that it is too late in life to retrain. It is never too late to learn something new.

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      • Noumenon says:

        Money Magazine points out that once you’re over 30 or so it’s too late to learn accounting, in the sense that you financially will not make up the money spent on the degree and career switch.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
      • Enter your name says:

        They’re probably thinking “learn accounting” means “get an MBA, pass your CPA, and earn a six-figure annual income”.

        At the other end of the scale, you can “learn accounting” well enough to get an entry-level bookkeeping job merely by taking two first-year-level college classes at your local community college.

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    • Steevn says:

      Your experience matches another piece of information I heard… that some high percentage of unemployed just happen to find employment within 3 weeks of their unemployment benefits running out. Interesting…

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Debra says:

      Even when you resort to lowering your job expectations, it doesn’t mean those jobs are available. Even the lowliest jobs are now at an all-time low.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  5. Captain Oblivious says:

    How can women spend 13% watching TV, and men 19%, but together they spend 12%?

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  6. assumo says:

    I’ve always thought that we’d be a lot better off if people spent more time contributing to their communities, or performing work that has monetary value if done by a professional (like car or bike maintennance, home improvement, etc). One needs time to relax, but imagine the immense unrealized human capitol that is wasted by watching TV or other unproductive activities like commenting on weblogs…

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  7. Jestak says:

    The only way you get “the bulk” of foregone work hours going to leisure is by counting sleep as leisure. That seems a little dubious; sleep is a biologically necessary activity, and there’s plenty of research suggesting that working Americans don’t get enough sleep.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
    • rick says:

      This was certainly not my experience when out of work for 10 months. Almost all of my time during the former working hours was spent in job searches, applying, and on the phone. I did take some time off for home improvement work. I can’t see spending 24% of the extra time sleeping though.

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  8. Nevada Dave says:

    Of course, since the study looks at the change in hours involved in “market work” compared to other categories, the fact that this includes unemployed and underemployed workers muddies the results to a degree.

    For example, as a worker on furlough 8 hours a month in 2010, or 1.86 hours per week (not far off from the 2.1 hours they are examining), I did not spend those 8 hours looking for a new job. I am satisfied with my current job, and instead did in fact use those hours for leisure.

    So one should be cautious in reading these results as “the unemployed are lazy people who never really look for work.” There’s plenty of other people caught up in the data.

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