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March 8, 2007
Economic Scene

The Future of Leisure That Never Arrived


In 1930 the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the biggest problem facing future generations would be what to do with all their leisure time.

Well, here we are in Keynes’s future: Where is that leisure we were promised?

Though the average hours at work have certainly decreased in the last century, it doesn’t necessarily follow that leisure has increased, since nonlabor time is not necessarily leisure. Any attempt to compare changes in leisure over long periods of time has to confront some tricky issues of definition.

The most recent attempt to examine long-term trends in leisure is by two economists, Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, and Neville Francis of the University of North Carolina. Next time you get a chance, you can download the paper from if you never find the time, it’s no wonder. According to Ms. Ramey and Mr. Francis, the amount of leisure time per capita hasn’t changed much in the last 105 years.

Since this view is at odds with a number of other studies, it is worth going over their analysis to see how they reach this somewhat surprising conclusion.

Many other studies have looked at leisure of the “working-age population.” The trouble with this approach is that the definition of “working age” has changed substantially in the last 100 years. According to the 1910 census, 25 percent of male children 10 to 15 years old were full-time workers. That fraction is considerably smaller today.

But if we include children and teenagers when we compute per capita leisure, how should we count time spent in school? In 1910, only 10 percent of children 14 to 17 years old were enrolled in high school while by 2003, 95 percent of this age group were in school. In the same period, the number of school days increased to more than 160 a year from fewer than 100.

A result is that children’s leisure time has gone up, but not by much. According to Ms. Ramey and Mr. Francis, 70 percent of the reduction in work hours has been offset by increased hours in school.

But are band practice and gym classes labor or leisure? What is leisure anyway?

The economists offer an interesting answer to this almost metaphysical question. According to them, leisure activities are those that give direct enjoyment. So all we have to do is to figure out what sorts of activities people enjoy.

Luckily, the Survey Research Center at the University of Maryland conducted a survey in 1985 in which people were asked to rate how much they enjoyed various activities on a scale of 1 to 10. “Sex” came in first, with a score of 9.3, followed by “sports” at 9.2. “Housecleaning” is near the bottom of the list, with a score of 4.9.

Child care is an interesting category in that “play with kids” ranked near the top at 8.8, but “taking kids to the doctor or dentist” is near the bottom at 4.7. Hence, the economists count child care as partly leisure and partly labor.

What about housework? Given its 4.9 rating, it can’t really be considered leisure time. Advances in technology have made housework much less onerous and time-consuming than it once was: a century ago it took four hours to do a load of laundry and 4.5 hours to iron it. Today it takes 41 minutes to wash a load of laundry, and modern fabrics need much less ironing.

But since the time necessary to do a given amount of housework has gone down, people have chosen to do more of it. One hundred years ago, it was a luxury to have clean clothes, a tidy house and a cooked meal. Today these things are viewed as necessities of life.

Based on available evidence, it seems that housekeeping involved about 56 hours a week in 1912. This fell to 52 hours a week by 1920 and stayed constant until 1965; it then declined again, dropping to 45 hours a week by 1975, and has been relatively constant since.

If we were willing to settle for the standards of nutrition, health and cleanliness that prevailed in 1900, much less labor would be required. But, as Betty Friedan has said in “The Feminine Mystique,” “housewifery expands to fill the time available.”

When you account for the much longer time in school, the more or less constant amount of time spent on housework, and make a few other adjustments, hours spent on purely enjoyable activities haven’t changed that much in the last century. Keynes may have been right that future generations will have a lot of time on their hands, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening anytime soon.

By the way, reading the newspaper seems to be a mildly pleasurable activity, with a score of 7.8. This puts it just behind “lunch break” and slightly ahead of “knitting and sewing.” Of course, different parts of the paper may be more enjoyable than others. Reading Economic Scene may never be as good as “sex,” but perhaps we can aspire someday to beating out “lunch break.”

Hal R. Varian is a professor of business, economics and information management at the University of California, Berkeley.