Americans are not, in fact, working as much as they used to. They are just getting paid for more of the work they do. Using several different definitions of leisure, [Univ. of Chicago] Professor [Erik] Hurst and Mark A. Aguiar, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, analyzed time-use surveys done from 1965 to 2003. Whether they defined leisure narrowly or broadly, they got a consistent result.
"Leisure time–measured in a variety of ways–has increased significantly between 1965 and 2003," they write in "Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time Over Five Decades," a Boston Fed working paper.
How significantly? By as much as 5.1 hours a week–the equivalent of six weeks of vacation a year (assuming a 40 hour work week and adjusting for age). More good news: Leisure time, says Hurst, has grown more quickly among the less-educated. And cheer up, ladies:
In 2003, women spent 11.1 fewer hours a week working at home than they did in 1965. The biggest drop, 6.2 hours a week, came in cooking and cleaning up after meals–not surprising, given the enormous growth in restaurant and takeout meals and the spread of microwave ovens.
More here (it's from Virginia Postrel's latest NY Times col).
So if we're all lolling in leisure, why do most of us feel like our heads' are about to explode from activity? A few years back, I interviewed Geoffrey Godbey, coauthor of the excellent study Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time. Godbey and coauthor John Robinson found, similar to Hurst and pal, that we had gained about an hour a day of "free time" since 1965. So why so hectic? Here's what he said on that score:
Q: If people really have more time, then why do they feel rushed?
A: Twenty-five of those 40 hours come on weekdays, not on weekends, and they come in chunks of an hour here, an hour-and-a-half there. In many cases, that time does not provide for psychological release from work or other obligations. If leisure means tranquility, these hour-long chunks may not have much effect.
A major reason people feel rushed is that they believe the amount of change in our society is just unprecedented. More than anything else, rushing relates to the number of roles a person plays. If you're a married female with children in a two-car family and working full-time for pay, you'll feel rushed. Throw a pet in there, and you've got the whole catastrophe. Men's increased participation in child care and housework has a similar effect.