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Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: Laid-Back Labor

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In their May 6, 2007, column for the New York Times Magazine, Dubner and Levitt wonder: Why do Americans spend so much time and money performing menial tasks when they don’t have to? What’s with all the knitting, gardening, and – as the Census Bureau dubs it – “cooking for fun”? Why do we fill our hours with leisure activities that look an awful lot like work? Click here to read the article. This blog post supplies additional research material.

  1. In a paper called “A Century of Work and Leisure,” the economists Valerie A. Ramey and Neville Francis found that Americans indeed work fewer hours than they did 100 years ago, but fill up a lot of their extra time with “home production” tasks.
  2. In this paper, the economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst argue that, while Americans have gained leisure time thanks to technological innovations (like the washing machine), we have also increased our appetite for ever spiffier surroundings.
  3. Since 1878, the U.S. Census Bureau has been publishing an annual Statistical Abstract that compiles data on who we are and how we spend our time. Here’s a link to every edition of the abstract, and here are the interesting early years (1878-1900).
  4. Music-making is a leisure activity in decline. According to the Music Trades magazine, which has reported on the music industry since 1890, roughly 300,000 pianos were sold annually at the height of the instrument’s popularity. The phonograph and the radio, however, eventually drove the piano into deep disfavor; last year, fewer than 77,000 pianos were sold in the U.S. … The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at U.C. Santa Barbara has been digitizing its collection of 6,000 audio cylinders, the first commercially produced sound recordings.
  5. The study of “Serious Leisure” has become a serious academic pursuit. Robert A. Stebbins at the University of Calgary has been studying leisure from a sociological perspective since 1973.
  6. Jenna Hartel, a doctoral candidate in information studies at U.C.L.A., studies hobbyist cooks, with a particular interest in the evolution of the recipe card.
  7. Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, posits that the ability to cook food was a turning point for our ape ancestors, and believes we might be genetically coded to enjoy slaving over a hot stove.
  8. Steve Levitt is no stranger to the high-end-menial-labor movement. His sister Linda runs a yarn store called Yarnzilla, and Levitt himself bought a hydroponic plant grower that he found in a SkyMall catalog. To date, it has produced roughly 14 cherry tomatoes.
  9. Stephen Dubner grew up on a small farm in upstate New York, spending his formative years sowing, mucking, and reaping. As a result, he has no desire to grow his own food. He will, however, spend a lot of hours preparing a single meal … just for fun.