How People Use Their (Reduced Amount of) Free Time

After two decades of stability, Americans’ leisure time took a dive in this year’s edition of a recurring Harris Poll. Released earlier this month (based on polling fielded in October), the survey put the median weekly hours of leisure time for U.S. adults at 16 — down four hours from last year. The figure had been either 19 or 20 hours in polls dating back to 1989.

It’s not that Americans are working significantly more this year than in the recent past. Asked to say how many hours per week they spend “at work, housekeeping or studies, including any travel time to and from the job or school,” respondents gave answers yielding a median figure of 46 hours — up one hour from last year, but lower than the number for each previous year in this decade (and, for that matter, each year in the 1990s).

How are we to account for the fact that leisure time is down four hours from last year while work time is up just one hour? Harris offers a theory: “As the American economic situation worsened, people who were worried about their jobs spent more time ‘just checking in’ via computer or wireless device.” Respondents didn’t count such time as either leisure or work, says Harris, instead consigning it to a “nebulous grey area.”

Be that as it may, the poll took its usual look at how people like to spend the free time they do have. Asked to pick their “two or three most favorite leisure-time activities,” respondents put “reading” atop the list (picked by 30 percent). Also scoring in double digits were “TV watching” (24 percent) and “spending time with family/kids” (17 percent). “Exercise” (8 percent) came next in the standings, ahead of “computer activities” and “fishing” (7 percent each). Tied at 6 percent were “going to movies,” “golf” and “walking.”

The biggest changes since last year’s poll are in the votes for TV viewing (up 6 percentage points), time with family/kids (up 3 points) and exercise (up 3 points). Despite the spread of broadband Internet access, “computer activities” has not increased its share of the vote in recent years — at least among adults. (Keep in mind that Harris didn’t poll anyone under age 18.)