Lessons from the 2010 American Time Use Survey

“The business of the United States is business.” — Calvin Coolidge and several other American presidents

“Last year continued to show the effects of the weak economy. The amount of time spent watching T.V. and other nonproductive activities remains extraordinarily high.” — Alan Krueger, American economist, in response to the 2010 American Time Use Study.

“On an average day, 20 percent of men did housework — such as cleaning or doing laundry — compared with 49 percent of women.” — Citation from the 2010 American Time Use Study.

On June 22, 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of its annual American Time Use Survey (ATUS) for 2010. A yearly tradition since 2003, ATUS offers a fascinating glimpse into the ways that Americans spend an average day. This time around, the results derived from interviews with 13,200 individuals, representing a cross-section of the American public. Among other things, the data provide an interesting perspective on workplace productivity, so let’s take a quick look.

The most interesting statistic (from a productivity perspective, at least) is the average amount of time Americans spent at work: three hours and 58 minutes per workday, down six minutes from 2009 and 30 minutes from 2007. The press has seized upon this figure, with some observers charging that we’ve become a nation of slackers. However, these commentators have misinterpreted the data, confusing an average across the board for the average for the employed.

The raw figures actually reflect the fact that ATUS covers a representative sample of all types of individuals from age 15 and up, not just employed adults. Many of the people surveyed were unemployed or employed part-time, so of course they would drag the average number of work-hours down. The decrease in the average time worked appears to represent not increased laziness but increased unemployment, which suggests that the recession worsened during 2010—no matter what any other metrics may have suggested.

A closer look at the statistical breakdown shows that employed individuals actually spent an average of 7 hours, 50 minutes working on weekdays, with work-related activities bringing that up to a solid 8.23 hours. Add to that an average of 5.45 hours per weekend day (5.64 with work-related activities) and it’s clear that working Americans aren’t the slackers we’re sometimes made out to be. About 82 percent of the employed worked on an average weekday, with 35 percent working weekends. This reflects how individual workweeks are structured, and hasn’t really changed in the past year.

Employed men worked an average of 8.2 hours on weekdays, with women averaging 7.8 hours. Overall, women tended to work 41 fewer minutes per workday than men. This is apparently due to the fact that women are more likely to work part-time, since they continue to be the primary familial caregivers and housekeepers. Only 20% of the men surveyed reported doing housework on the average day, for example, while 49% of women did. Similarly, women were half again more likely to take care of another household member on any given day than men were (30% vs. 20%).

So: where’s the lost work-time going? That’s difficult to say, though some observers are quick to assign it to the sleep and leisure categories. However, while both are currently higher than pre-recession numbers, there’s virtually no difference between the 2009 and 2010 averages for sleep-time, and Americans actually spent less time on leisure in 2010 than they did in 2009. In fact, the only basic survey category to increase significantly from 2009 was the catch-all “Other activities, not elsewhere classified”, which rose about seven minutes from .24 to .35 hours.

The average time spent sleeping remains steady at 8 hours, 40 minutes per day (8.67 hours), with women spending slightly longer asleep (8 hours, 46 minutes) than men (8 hours, 34 minutes). The sleep average for weekdays is 8.38 hours, about 90 seconds longer than 2009; for weekends, it’s 9.34 hours.

Average time devoted to leisure activities has dropped from 5.25 to 5.18 hours per day, with men again leading the pack (5.57 hours vs. 4.82 hours for women). Watching TV took up the lion’s share of this category, at 2.73 hours (2 hours, 43 minutes). People were more likely to watch TV on the weekends than on weekdays, but they still racked up 2 hours, 31 minutes daily during the workweek. While that’s an increase of 5.4 minutes over 2007 levels, it’s a decrease of 5.6 minutes since 2009.

What all these rather dry statistics boil down to is this: Americans are slightly less productive as a whole than we were last year, continuing a trend observable since 2007. It’s clear that the decline is due to increased unemployment rather than slacking, since the average numbers do include both the employed and unemployed. A closer examination of the data shows that the average employed American is as productive as ever.

And despite the assertion by some that we’re using our lost work-time to sleep and play rather than better ourselves (which would be an understandable reaction to the pressures of the recession, if true), we’re actually sleeping about as long as we did last year, and playing a bit less. The actual fate of that lost six minutes per day remains unclear.