How jobless Americans are spending their time

Some new research suggests that unemployed Americans are doing a variety of things:

One study last year found that much of the extra time gets spent sleeping and watching TV–leading to news reports that the jobless “frittered away” their time. Another analysis–this one released in January and co-written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who was announced Monday as the White House’s pick to serve as the chief economic adviser to President Obama–pointed in the same direction. It found that people tend to devote fewer hours to job searches the longer they’ve been unemployed, and that sleep–especially “sleep in the morning hours”–increases as joblessness goes on. Together, the studies appeared to create a picture of the unemployed as lazy and unproductive.But a sophisticated new analysis (pdf) complicates that picture. In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mark A. Aguiar, Erik Hurst, and Loukas Karabarbounis, using data from the American Time Use Survey, found that the jobless do spend about 30 percent of their extra time–the time they would otherwise have spent working–sleeping or watching TV, and another 20 percent on other leisure activities. But around 35 percent is spent doing unpaid but nonetheless important work, like child-care and housework. And other investments–things like education, health-care, and volunteer work –account for another 10 percent.

The notion advanced by some that jobless benefits are being used to support a life of leisure is, at best, simplistic.

But as Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, notes, there’s a limit to how much useful unpaid work the jobless can do. “They lack the capital, land, tools and skills needed to flexibly shift from wage employment to production for their own use.,” she writes. “Even when they can make a partial shift, their productivity is likely to be lower in unpaid work than paid work.”

I’m a little surprised by the quote from an economist at the end: unpaid work still needs to be done by someone whether they currently have the skills for it or not. Perhaps she is referring to longer-term issues: do the unemployed go back to work (perhaps by changing fields or getting educated in new areas) or do they adjust to a life of unpaid work? In the meantime, there is a transition that has to be made. But I can imagine that some people would see this quote and wonder what this means for people who have always done unpaid work, particularly mothers.

Another way to interpret the earlier study that the unemployed enjoy a life of leisure is that this is due to feelings of restlessness and perhaps even depression.

In general, I find time use studies to be quite interesting. When you ask people general questions about how they spend their time, like how long they spend at work, the numbers can be quite inflated. The better studies require logs or diaries and ask questions about recent time periods where memories will not be as distorted. Here is how the American Time Use Study describes some of its methodology (starting at page 11 of this document):

The ATUS sample is randomized by day, with 50 percent of the sample reporting about
weekdays, Monday through Friday, and 50 percent reporting about Saturday and
Sunday. Designated persons must report about their activities on their designated day,
without any substitution of days…

The ATUS interview is a combination of structured questions and conversational
interviewing. It consists of four major topics: the household roster, the time diary, the
summary questions, and a section related to information collected in the eighth CPS
interview. The portion of the interview relating to the CPS is divided into four sections:
labor force status, looking for work, industry and occupation, and earnings and school
enrollment. These questions are used to update or confirm time-sensitive CPS data or
to fill in missing CPS data. Each section is described below in more detail…

For all parts of the interview except the collection of the time-use diary data (in
section 4, above), interviewers read scripted text on the CATI screen and enter the
reported responses.

For the time-use diary, the interviewer uses conversational interviewing rather than
asking scripted questions. This is a more flexible interviewing technique designed to
allow the respondent to report on his or her activities comfortably and accurately. This
technique also allows interviewers to use methods to guide respondents through memory lapses, to probe in a nonleading way for the level of detail required to code activities, and to redirect respondents who are providing unnecessary information. As each activity is reported, the interviewer records the verbatim responses on a new activity line. The interviewers are trained to ensure that the respondent reports
activities (and activity durations) actually done on the previous (diary) day, not
activities done on a “usual” day. Interviewers do this by placing continual emphasis on
the word “yesterday” throughout the interview.

This study relies on both a diary and asking questions about yesterday.

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