Examining How Americans Spend Their Time (Free And Otherwise)

Where does the time go? The Bureau of Labor Statistics knows. To shed light on how people spend a typical day, it conducted the American Time Use Study. About 21,000 people age 15 and up were asked to enumerate their activities from 4 a.m. on the day before they were interviewed until 4 a.m. on the day of the interview.

Some of the findings were predictable—for instance, the fact that women were twice as likely as men to have engaged in food preparation and cleanup the previous day. (And, just to rub it in, men devoted more time than women to eating and drinking—1.24 hours vs. 1.18 hours.) There were also some surprises, though. For one, the data cast doubt on the notion that the population as a whole suffers a “sleep deficit.” While many people do get too little sleep, respondents reported getting an average of 8.57 hours of sleep per day (naps included). Elsewhere in the report, parents of young kids will be astonished to read that they have some leisure time, despite their impression to the contrary. People in households that have a child age 6 or younger spent an average of 4.02 hours per day on “all leisure and sports activities”—not wildly less than the 5.62 hours for those with no kids under age 18. Kids are the natural enemies of reading as a pastime, though. In households with no kids under 18, men read for an average of 0.40 hours per day and women for 0.54 hours. In households with a kid 6 or younger, the figure fell to 0.15 hours for men and 0.14 hours for women.

As for other sorts of leisure, men in households with no children spent an average of 0.39 hours “participating in sports, exercise and recreation,” vs. 0.30 hours for those with children age 6 or younger; women in kid-free households spent an average of 2.69 hours per day watching TV, vs. 1.93 hours for those with kids 6 or younger. For respondents in general, TV dominates free time. Among those who watched TV on the day before being queried—and about four of five did so—men spent 3.43 hours and women 3.11 hours at it. Might people feel more leisured if they spent less of their free time in this passive way?

Men compensated for their comparative sloth at domestic tasks by toiling more for pay. And it’s not just because women are more likely to work part-time: Among full-time workers, men averaged 8.3 hours per day on the job and women averaged 7.7 hours. Increasingly, “on the job” doesn’t mean “away from home.” About 19 percent of employed respondents said they’d done some or all of the previous day’s work at home. The figure climbed to 33 percent among those with a bachelor’s degree or more.