How has the great recession changed personal habits?

Written by Ed Dolan Monday, 25 June 2012 11:26
Rate this item
(3 votes)


Ed Dolan is the author of There Aint No Such Thing As A Free Lunch


Writers of economics textbooks like to remind us that official employment and GDP data are not very good measures of how hard we work or of the goods and services we produce, but what alternatives do we have? One little­-noticed alterative is the annual American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides 24/7 coverage of the activities of the civilian population aged 15 and older. The BLS released the 2011 survey last Friday. Comparing it to the 2007 data provides an interesting perspective on how the Great Recession has affected our lives.


We work less, of course. From 2007 to 2011, the employment-population ratio, one broad indicator of how much we work, fell from 63 percent to 58.2 percent, a 7.6 percent decrease. The time use survey shows the same change as a 6.3 percent decrease, from 3.81 to 3.57 hours, in the daily average time spent at work and in work-related activities like commuting. That comes out to 14.4 minutes less work per day.


Fourteen minutes? Is this whole Great Recession thing, this whole “It’s the Jobs, Stupid!” election thing—is it all about 14 minutes a day? Yep. If that 14 minutes less a day were spread equally among the whole adult civilian population, we’d hardly notice the difference. According to the time use survey, we spend more time than that just shaving and doing our nails.


Of course, the change in work patterns was not spread equally. With the employment-population ratio at an all-time low not much above 50 percent, we know that just over half of the population accounts for all hours spent in paid employment. The time use survey confirms that by reporting that those who were employed at all worked an average of 7.99 hours per day in 2011. Interestingly, despite other BLS data that show an increase in the number of people involuntarily working part time, the time use survey shows that the average employed person worked about a minute longer in 2011 than in 2007. Evidently, most of the lost 14 minutes of work was accounted for by people who went from full-time work to full unemployment. Among those who remained employed, shorter hours for some were balanced by overtime for others.

Just what have we done with those 14 minutes per day that the Great Recession has freed up for us? Here’s where most of it has gone:


  • 11.4 minutes per day went to more sleep. That raised average time spent sleeping to 8.42 minutes per day.
  • 7.8 minutes per day went to watching TV
  • 2.4 minutes went to education, and another 5.4 minutes into other, unclassified activities


Those increases in use of time come to 27 minutes per day. The Great Recession also induced us to spend less time on some things. For example, we spent 3.6 fewer minutes per day shopping, which is perhaps not surprising, since we had less money to spend. We spent less time on leisure activities other than watching TV, again not surprising, since watching TV is cheap compared with time on the golf course or at the opera. We also spent less time doing household chores, and no more time doing volunteer work or other civic activities. Do these numbers indicate a collective state of depression? When we are out of work, do we just sleep and watch TV, our mood too low even to run the vac or the lawnmower, let alone help others or go to the gym?


The time use survey also provides some interesting insights into what GDP measures and what it does not. One notorious shortcoming of GDP is that it leaves out nonmarket activities, including goods and services that we provide for ourselves or others without pay. GDP captures those activities only if we hire others to provide them.


Household activities like cleaning, cooking, lawn care and home repairs are one big category. The average American spent 1.77 hours per day on those in 2011. Caring for others, especially children and elderly family members,  accounted for another .72 hours per day. Volunteer activities, such as managing community organizations, delivering meals-on-wheels, or mowing the grass at the Little League park accounted for another .15 hours per day. The total of nonmarket production came to 3.04 hours per day, not far short of the 3.57 hours that, on average, people worked in the market sector.


Suppose we refer to the total value of all productive use of our time, market and nonmarket, as Gross Domestic Productive Activity, or GDPA. In 2011, we spent 6.21 hours per day on GDPA, or 85 percent more hours than were expended on GDP alone. Even if we were only half as productive, on average, when doing home repairs and volunteer work as we are in the office or on the assembly line, GDPA would be some 40 percent larger than GDP. It would also be more equally distributed, since many people engage in production of the nonmarket component of GDPA who don’t contribute to GDP, but few people who contribute to GDP produce no nonmarket GDPA at all.


What has the Great Recession done to GDP and GDPA? Officially measured real GDP per capita was 2.4 percent lower 2011 than in 2007, its prerecession peak year. If we use the full-productivity estimate, GDPA per capita fell by 4.7 percent over the same period. Using the half-productivity estimate, GDPA fell by 1.6 percent. I find those numbers a little surprising. I would have expected more laid off workers to have spent their extra hours caring for their kids, catching up on home repair projects, or doing volunteer work. If they had, GDPA per capita might not have fallen at all. Once again we are led to wonder if these numbers are evidence of collective depression.


Finally, the time use survey provides some interesting data on differences in how men and women use their time. Some expected stereotypes hold up; some do not. Women spend more time on personal grooming, housework, and cooking. Men spend more time on lawn care, home repairs, and sports. Men spend about 40 percent more time in paid employment than women, but the extra time women spend in nonmarket productive activities makes up most of the difference. When both paid and unpaid work are added together, men spend only about 5 minutes more a day on activities that contribute to GDPA.


In this regard, the Great Recession has hardly changed matters at all. Both men and women spent about half an hour less each day contributing to GDPA in 2011 than in 2007, but men’s share of GDPA has not significantly changed. Men’s greater contribution to caring for others and volunteer activities in 2011 just balanced a slight increase in women’s contribution to housework. Through boom and bust, neither men nor women spent more than 40 percent of their waking hours on productive work. The old adage that “man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done” no longer seems to hold.

Add comment