John Robinson is a leading researcher on the use of time. In fact, his colleagues at the University of Maryland call him Father Time. He recently published findings that Americans have more leisure time these days, which shocked many people who feel more stressed out.
Robinson defends his findings in a conversation with Here & Now’s Robin Young. He also discusses other findings that show people are less happy with what they do with their time. Work now rates down at the bottom on the enjoyment scale, right next to house cleaning.
Interview Highlights: John Robinson
On the reasons we have more leisure time than before
“Today, people are having fewer children and they are also spending less time being married, and these are two factors that are involved. But we find that, even among married people with children, there has been an increase in the amount of free time that people have available — again, about an hour increase in the amount of free time that people have. Even women with children have more than 30 hours a week of free time, impossible as that may seem. However, we also asked some questions about how people may feel about time, and I was really surprised to find recently that fewer people felt that they were rushed all the time.”
On how he and his team of researchers define “free time”
“It is based simply on what it is that people say that they’re doing, and if people are driving, that’s not free time. And our definition of free time is pretty strict in terms of the activities, I think — although we did have one person who said he didn’t have any free time because he was watching television. We do include television as a free time activity, relaxing, reading, certain kinds of fitness activities.”
On why women report being more stressed
“I think the main reason is because women spend more of their time doing household chores, and those are a lot less rewarding. Men and women do agree that these are among the least enjoyable of activities.”
On the low level of satisfaction people get from their jobs
“That’s a real surprise and a real shocking finding, I think, and it used to be the case that work was above average in terms of the enjoyment people got out of it, and here it is down toward the bottom — at about the same level women rate doing housework, and women rate housework about the same. But it is the case that work is down there as well, and I think that is something that needs to be a lot more researched.”
- John P. Robinson, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And recently new research came out that basically said Americans, except for very few, have more leisure time. What? How can that be? We decided to go right to the source. John Robinson - he's a sociologist with the University of Maryland Population Research Center. They crunch their own data and that of the Census Bureau. And they have new research, not only on time spent, but on how we emotionally feel about it. They call John, Doctor Time. So John, start with more leisure time. You say this started about 30 years ago and there are two main reasons. They are?
JOHN ROBINSON: Having children and getting married. And today people are having fewer children and they are also spending less time being married. And these are two factors that are involved. But we find even among married people with children, there has been an increase in the amount of free time that people have available. Again about an hour increase in the amount of free time that people have. Even women with children have more than 30 hours a week of free time, as impossible as that may seem. However, we also asked some questions about how people feel about time, and I was really surprised to find recently that fewer people felt that they were rushed all of the time. That was a surprise.
YOUNG: Fewer people? Fewer people?
ROBINSON: Fewer people. It doesn't mean that everybody has more free time. It just means that, on average, the population as a whole does.
YOUNG: But people don't feel it. So how do you know? How do you know how much leisure time, free time people have?
ROBINSON: Well it's in a device called a time diary. We don't depend on just people estimating how much free time they have or how much time they spend working. But instead we have them go through a time diary. That is something that they fill out for a day - one day - they simply have to report what it is that they're doing.
YOUNG: Well, here's where there might be a little disconnect, maybe. You were part of the research done by Washington Post reporter, Bridgid Schulte, for her new book on leisure. It's called "Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time." And you asked her to fill out these time diaries. But she writes that one afternoon she was eating lunch while waiting on hold with the pharmacy that supplies are son's medication. While searching the web to get a death certificate for her brother-in-law, who died in China. And she called you to ask, I mean, this technically was her lunch hour, but she called to ask, how do I fill that out? That's work.
ROBINSON: Well, it was kind of an elaborate diary. She filled her's out with a lot more conscientiousness then, I think, then a lot of other people. And she was unusual in the sense that she had so little free time.
YOUNG: I can hear a lot of people saying, actually Bridgid Schulte sounds a lot like me - you know, on hold, multitasking. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about all of this in the New Yorker. You know, there are researchers as you well know at the University of Texas and also at Sogang University in Seoul, who call this kind of complaining - you know, I am multitasking I've so much to do - they call it yuppie kvetching.
YOUNG: But isn't that real? Schulte also writes about, you know, if I'm sitting in a car at a red light, you as a researcher might say that's leisure time - but in my head I'm going over my work, where the kids have to be at a certain time. You know, Americans - that doesn't feel like leisure time.
ROBINSON: It is based simply on what it is that people say that they're doing, and if people are driving, that's not free time. And our definition of free time is pretty strict in terms of the activities, I think, although we did have one person who said that he didn't have any free time because he was watching television. We do include television as a free time activity - relaxing, reading, certain kind of fitness activities.
YOUNG: Well, yeah, again I can hear someone saying, well unless your definition of watching television means you have it on but you are doing several washes, picking up the house, maybe making dinner - and then again it doesn't feel like leisure time. Talk about women in particular. There are some saying that one of the reasons that these stats show more free time is because men and women are sharing responsibilities. A lot of our listeners said, we don't yet see that. What does your research show?
ROBINSON: First of all, if they're watching television and they don't tell us that they're folding laundry or minding the children, that is coded as TV viewing. In our numbers, people watch about 20 hours a week of TV. I've been on programs when people have said - where Nielsen figures have come in saying people watch 40 hours of TV a week. There is no objection to that. So oh yeah, that's about 40 hours of TV. That's about as much free time as we have in general. So somehow there is a disconnect between people's perceptions and I think particularly with regard to television, which has continued to increase across time, despite the fact that we have all these new gizmos.
YOUNG: Yeah, interesting. Well, but to the questions about housework and shared chores. You're got brand-new research out about women reporting their daily lives are more stressed, tiring, sad, and painful than men are reporting. And yet they rate their lives happier and more meaningful. Take apart that headline.
ROBINSON: Well that's what I've been trying to do in terms of trying to find out why that's the case. I think the main reason is because women spend more of their time doing household chores, and those are a lot less rewarding. Men and women do agree that these are among the least enjoyable of activities.
YOUNG: In fact you say women do twice the housework. But that's down from the 80% they used to do. And as you said, men and women both hate it. But they don't like something else either. Let's see if we can square the circle about time with another finding. You ask not just about time spent, but feelings about time spent - people's jobs and employment have very low ratings.
ROBINSON: Yes, that's a real surprise and a real shocking finding, I think. It used to be the case that work was above average in terms of the enjoyment people got. And here it is down towards the bottom, actually at about the same level as women rate doing housework and men and women rate about housework the same. But it is the case that work is down there as well, and I think that is something which is really needs to be a lot more researched.
YOUNG: Well, I'm wondering if this new finding that people are rating their work at the same level as household chores, if this could have something to do with where we started. The fact that while your research and all this research is showing that there is more leisure time, people are not feeling it. Could the second conclusion that they are not liking their jobs as much, could that somehow be coloring making them feel as if they're working more than they might be?
ROBINSON: There could be and I think there's always the feeling that I'm working harder than somebody else. It's an American virtue that I think a lot of people would like to claim, and I'm not saying that people do not work hard. Again these are some findings that we really need to investigate further.
ROBINSON: Playing with children is at the top of the list in terms of enjoyment, as is volunteering and other kinds of social activities that people engage in. Way down the list is work and housework activities as I mentioned. But almost lower than that is TV. And TV is as I mentioned earlier about half of our free time. And somehow the idea that maybe working hard so we would have time to watch TV, people don't seem to be getting that much enjoyment out of the TV. Nor are they getting much satisfaction from the time they spent relaxing, which is also down towards the bottom of the list in terms of enjoyment that people had. It's surprising that there's as large a difference as there is for work, but perhaps more disturbing is the fact that particularly television, which are such a large proportion of time we spend each day, is not rewarding people with the pleasure that they might've expected given the fact that this is their one chance to perhaps spend time as they'd like.
YOUNG: Wait. We're a mess. That's what I take from all of this. John Robinson, a sociologist from the University of Maryland, Population Research Center. They interpret the data from the American Time Use Survey put out by - taken by the Census Bureau. Thank you so much, sir. Really appreciate it.
ROBINSON: Very good. Talk again soon.
YOUNG: Yeah, yeah. Let us know your research. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.