Social inertia in time use between the 1960s and today

A sociologist who has examined recent time use surveys suggests not much has changed since the 1960s:

John Robinson, a sociology professor from the University of Maryland whose research has focused heavily on Americans’ time use, said the most striking aspect of the latest American Time Use Survey is how closely it resembles similar information from before the 2008 recession — and from as early as the 1960s when time-use surveys first came into being.

The annual Bureau of Labor Statistics publication documents how Americans spend their time. In 2012, employed people worked for about 7.7 hours each day, spent two hours on household chores and took between five and six hours on leisure activities, with close to three of those hours spent plopped in front of the television…

Although today’s Americans spend their time similarly to their counterparts in the decade of discontent, Mr. Robinson noted some important changes in the by-the-minute breakdown. Men and women spend much more equal amounts of time at work, on housework and on leisure activities than they did in the 1960s.

Time spent watching TV has inched upward with every passing year, and although Mr. Robinson expected Internet use to slowly eat into TV time, the Web has yet to take up a large chunk of Americans’ time. The latest survey found men and women both spend less than 30 minutes of leisure time per workday on the computer.

Regardless, both Internet and TV use fall into the same category of activity: sedentary behavior.

This sounds like a good example of persistent social patterns. Without any official guidelines or norms about how people should spend their time, people are living fairly similarly to how they did in the 1960s. If daily life hasn’t changed much, perhaps it is more important to ask people’s perceptions about their time use. Do they feel better today about how they spend their days compared to fifty years ago? These perceptions are shaped by a number of factors, including generational changes where the younger adults of the 1960s are now the older adults of today.

The easier target for analysis: did people in the past expect that the people of the future would spend their time watching TV? I doubt it. At the same time, it suggests television has some staying power as a form of entertainment and information.

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