Civil Liberties

Eternal Vacation

An uptick in downtime


Every time President George W. Bush leaves Washington for his annual month-long vacation in Texas, editorialists pine for the days when the average American could kick back for a marathon holiday. But according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average American enjoys more free time than his parents did.

Analyzing information from four decades of time use surveys, economists Mark Aguiar of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago found that leisure time (defined as time spent on "entertainment/social activities/relaxing") jumped an average of 6.4 hours a week for men between 1965 and 2003. Even more surprising, women's leisure time rose substantially as well, by an average of 3.8 hours a week.

How can this be, given the mass entry of women into the work force during the same period? Hurst and Aguiar found that the decrease in women's home production work hours made possible by modern conveniences such as take-out food, microwave ovens, and dishwashers more than made up for the increase in market work hours, resulting in a net increase in downtime. Women may be spending more hours in the office, but they're spending many fewer hours in the kitchen.

None of this is necessarily inconsistent with the cherished popular image of a frenetic, hypercharged country. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of men and 26 percent of women always feel rushed. But to the extent that the average American is busier, the research suggests the culprit isn't economic necessity. It's choice.