Recently released data for 2021 shows an apparent return to (but not completely) pre-pandemic norms:
There are some comparability issues here as the 2020 survey was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic. There are seasonal differences in leisure activities, and the BLS ended up only publishing results from May through December. But those aren’t big issues: The 2019-2020 comparisons in the first paragraph are based on May-December data from both years, and available quarterly figures for TV viewing time show a big winter 2020 spike. -2021, then a plunge that actually left time spent on TV lower in the fourth quarter of 2021 than in any fourth quarter since 2007 – a change that has left its mark on the stock prices of Netflix Inc., Walt Disney Co. and others.
A bigger problem with these time series statistics, especially the modest upward trend in free time they showed even before the pandemic, is that the US population is steadily aging. Older people have significantly more free time than everyone else, which could lead to an increase in overall free time.
Effectively, if you break things down by age group, it’s not clear that there has been an increase in free time since the first time use survey in 2003. Among the smaller assortment of groups age groups for which the BLS provides historical data, half (those aged 25-34, 55-64 and 65+) have seen their leisure time increase since then and half (15-24, 35-44 and 45-54) a decrease. Most of the changes were so small they could just be sampling error, which is why I don’t bother with a graph. That’s not the case, however, for the group that has seen the biggest drop in free time since 2003, and had the least to start with.
I am speaking here of my fellow Americans aged 35 to 44, who are often parents of young children and at pivotal and very stressful stages in their careers. I was part of this group in 2003 and I remember feeling overwhelmed pretty much constantly. It’s getting better, I swear: measures of subjective well-being indicate that in the United States and many other countries, it bottoms out when people are in their mid to late 40s, then begins a long rise. , the time pressures on Americans aged 35 to 44 appear to continue to worsen. They have lost more than 16 minutes of average daily leisure time since 2003, with the pandemic offering no real respite.
Where did this lost free time go? To work, sleep and take care of the children, mainly. Here’s what’s happened since 2003 with the 12 umbrella categories that the BLS divides time use into (so numbers should add up to zero, but not quite due to rounding).
The increase in time spent on self-care appears to be a positive development, but there are caveats. This is primarily an increase in sleep time, which in the survey’s tally includes “insomnia episodes”, and has been boosted since 2019 by a 4.8-minute increase in “care health-related personnel” which is clearly due to the pandemic and is not a positive development at all.
As for time spent at work, it includes work-related travel time – mainly commuting – which decreased by 5.4 minutes from 2019 to 2021 thanks to the pandemic-induced shift to remote working. This means that non-travel work time for 35-44 year olds has increased by nearly 25 minutes since 2003. Meanwhile, the increase in time spent caring for and helping household members was entirely children, who took 11.4 minutes more per day in 2021 than in 2003 while the time spent caring for other household members decreased.
On the other side of the time balance, there were 12 fewer minutes per day spent buying goods and services, certainly a byproduct of the rise of e-commerce. This effect is apparent across all age groups, although the 35-44 age group tied with the 55-64 age group for the largest time savings. The decline in time spent on organizational, civic and religious activities, which does not appear to be such a big change, is apparent and statistically significant in all age groups except 65 and older, but is by far highest among 35-44 year olds.
Then there is free time, where it all started. Sixteen minutes wasted may not seem like much, but it’s a daily average that equates to 98.6 hours per year. Multiply that by the estimated 43.4 million Americans in the age group in mid-2021 and you get nearly 4.3 billion leisure hours lost last year. Which seems like a lot.
As can be seen if you look at the graph showing the age group’s free time over the years, the losses have occurred mainly since 2012. What could have caused this? I suspect this was a side effect of the country’s economic woes during and immediately after the Great Recession, when most people between the ages of 35 and 44 were in their twenties and just starting their adult lives. Trying to start, ie: The terrible job market has forced many people to return to school, to return to live with their parents and/or to delay the purchase of a house and the foundation from a family. Since then, they have been catching up, which has disrupted their daily routines.
On the positive side, this could portend a resumption of leisure for future 35 to 44-year-olds who did not face such economic crosswinds in their twenties. For now, however, this means that people in this age group are really particularly pressed for time. So be nice to your local 35-44 year olds. Maybe even offer to babysit.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. Former editorial director of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion