TV and togetherness: Americans want to stay home

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For 70 percent of Americans, when choosing where to spend an evening, there really is no place like home.

In a new survey of 1,002 adults ages 18 and older, the Gallup Organization found that the overwhelming majority of Americans prefer home-based activities to a night on the town.

In fact, only 10 percent said they'd go out. And though home has gained attention as a haven since Sept. 11, neither the homebody preference, nor its intensity, are post-terrorism phenomena. Since 1960, when Gallup began asking what Americans like to do at night, most have hung their hats at their own front doors.

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Even within the comfy confines of home, age groups choose different diversions. As might be expected, favorite nighttime activities shift dramatically across demographic clusters. While 19 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds would choose to spend the evening with friends, only 7 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds, and only 4 percent of those over 50, would do the same.

Americans under 30 are the least likely group to stay home. Yet even among those young go-getters, 58 percent hunker down in their easy chairs - either alone, or with family and friends.

So what are those hermits and homebodies up to? Twenty-six percent are probably watching television or a movie, and 25 percent are spending time with family. Nine percent turn to a good book, and an equal number simply put up their feet and relax.

The television or movie-at-home option is the clear favorite among older people, while 30-to-49-year-olds are most enthusiastic about staying home with family - perhaps because, at the height of their parenting years, they tend to have the most family to keep them company.

But don't think that love of family is new - or peaking. In the poll's 32-year history, 1987 was the heyday for family time, with 36 percent of Americans turning to relatives in their evenings off. The mid-80s were also a boom time for dining out, with 10 percent of 1987 respondents saying a restaurant meal would be their top choice for a night's diversion.

But it seems the thrill of dining out has diminished. For all the hype of restaurants today - with 80 percent of Americans eating out at least once a week - only 5 percent say that dining away from home is their favorite evening activity. An equally small number say they'd go to the movies or watch a play, and just 1 percent would head to a church-related event.

Television watching reached its height of popularity from 1966 to 1974. By then, almost all US households owned at least one television (9 in 10 homes had one by 1960), and about half of Americans - nearly twice as many as today - said they'd rather tune into the tube on a given evening than do anything else.

The television might not get the workout it did in the 1960s and '70s, but Americans aren't just staring at blank living-room walls. In fact, they find more to do at home than ever before. Hobbies are far more prevalent in this year's survey than in past years. Whereas 1948 found just over half of Americans declaring a hobby, 80 percent of today's respondents have one.

Sports are the most popular diversion, drawing a third of hobbyists - a jump from the 10 percent they attracted in 1948. Today, 17 percent of respondents turn to crafts, up from 15 percent a half-century ago.

But the most dramatic jump comes in reading. Only 1 percent of respondents admitted to cracking a book - and liking it - in 1948. But today, that number has leapt to 12 percent.

The two hobbies that have diminished in popularity are collecting (of stamps, buttons, coins, etc.) and amateur craftsmanship (such as photography or ham radio).

Tinkering less and staying home more: It looks like a placid America, from this year's poll. Those out on the town will face fewer crowds; restaurateurs will greet fewer diners. But millions of Americans, hunkering down in their living rooms, are finding plenty to divert and delight them as the 21st century unfolds.

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