Time Bind? What Time Bind?

SO YOU THINK YOU HAVE NO TIME for your kids, no time to sleep, read, cook, exercise, socialize--in short, no time to live? Well, wait a minute (if you can spare one), and get a load of this: a surprising book being published next month by two renowned time-study experts concludes Americans have more free time now than at any point in the past 30 years--an average of 40 free hours a week. John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, the authors of "Time for Life" (Penn State Press), acknowledge that Americans have more leisure in the aggregate partly because many of us are retiring younger and having fewer time-devouring children than we did in the 1960s. Yet they find that trend holds in almost every demographic, including working parents. Just about the only groups that don't have at least one more hour of free time a week than they did in 1965 are parents of very young children and those with more than four kids under 18. Everyone else--stop whining.

Needless to say, this is controversial stuff. Robinson and Godbey spent five years trying to find a publisher. One female editor rejected the book immediately--and angrily--when she got to the statistics showing that women have almost the same amount of free time (39.3 hours per week) as men (41.6). "She said, "I know this can't be right. I know women work longer than men'," says Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State. "She didn't say we're chauvinist pigs, but almost." The authors weren't entirely surprised by that reaction. The most trenchant aspect of their work is its ability to separate faulty perceptions of time use from reality. Instead of just asking people how many hours they work, eat, tend to the children, etc.--which is how most government data is collected--the 10,000 survey participants kept minute-by-minute diaries. Robinson, who has taken these surveys every 10 years since 1965 as part of the Americans' Use of Time Project, found that when people are simply asked how much time they work, they exaggerate (chart). "Being busy has become a status symbol," says Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. "As you say time is more important to you, you become more important yourself." In fact, Americans are working fewer hours than they did in 1965: about five fewer hours per week for working women, six fewer for men.

So where is all this alleged free time going? Not surprisingly, into the greatest time sinkhole of all: television. On average, Americans squander 15 of their 40 hours of free time every week on the boob tube, more than the time spent socializing (6.7 hours), reading (2.8 hours) and in outdoor recreation (2.2 hours) combined. It's not so much that we're lazy. Godbey and Robinson have also found that an increasing amount of free time now comes in tiny portions: a half hour here, an hour there. It's much easier to fit a "M*A*S*H" rerun into that fractured space than a mountain hike.

At least some of our time is well spent. The amount of time parents spend on the most essential child-care activities, such as reading, bathing, talking and playing with kids, has remained fairly static since 1965 for everyone but stay-at-home moms (who average 13 hours a week, compared with 2.5 for working dads). But Robinson and Godbey argue that because families have fewer children now, each child receives more parental attention than kids did in the '60s. And wives are getting more help from their husbands. While women still spend about twice as much time doing housework as men, the gap has closed considerably since 1965, when women spent more than five times the hours cleaning. Whether the guys have one eye on the TV while they're vacuuming is another question.