Leisure Time in the '90s: TV Soaks Up the Hours

For hard-working Americans, television offers way to unwind

Does the following nightly scene hit close to home?

After dinner, Chris Edginton of Cedar Falls, Iowa, usually eases into a chair and flips on the TV. On other nights, he'll watch from bed with his wife, eyes drooping until he gets up, half-asleep, and finally snuffs the flickering screen.

"When I leave my job and go home after being bombarded for eight to 10 hours a day with constant interaction with other human beings," he says, "I want to withdraw, and what I do is withdraw into TV."

Hurried at work, and somewhat exhausted at home, Mr. Edginton's choice for withdrawal, say the experts, is so common in the United States that watching TV is now the country's No. 1 leisure-time "activity."

The difference today is that the classic definition of leisure - relax and do nothing, or play for the sake of play - is in shambles.

The swift pace of American life, and the nation's preoccupation with the consumption of goods, has become "the consumption of experiences" even in leisure, says Geoffrey Godbey, co-author of the controversial new book "Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time" (Pennsylvania State University Press, $24.95).

More and more, all kinds of leisure activities are grabbed intermittently, in sequences. "As our leisure time has increased since 1965," says Mr. Godbey, "the gain has been plowed into more TV because it can be sequenced, an hour here, an hour and a half there. TV fits so well now, and it is immediately accessible." And it demands so little while it soaks up the hours.

Edginton, the director of the School of Health, Physical Education, and Leisure Services at the University of Northern Iowa, says that for many people, work is no longer centered in a building or tied to a schedule. It too can be flipped on and off in different places.

Does work ever end?

"Ten years ago, all my work materials were in my office," he says, "and now they can be in multiple locations. So, in a sense, when does your work life ever end? What you can do is get away from it for short periods and then come back."

The basic findings in Godbey's book - that workers spend fewer hours working than they did 30 years ago and actually have more free time - are based on time diaries kept by thousands of people for the American's Use of Time Project directed by John Robinson at the University of Maryland. Mr. Robinson is co-author of "Time for Life."

The book's conclusions dispute the findings of economist Juliet Schor in her book "The Overworked American." Ms. Schor reported that Americans are working more hours (163 more a year) because, among other factors, a goods-oriented economy snares people in a cycle of work and spend.

Godbey says the time diaries pin down workers to the actual amounts of time they work, not what hours they think they work.

"There are so many things going on for people to keep track of," Robinson says, "that this has led to a general sense of overall time pressure. People are postponing marriage and children, and then they find themselves in a time crunch later in life with more demanding responsibilities.

"But so much of this is a matter of perception," he continues. "We have even run into situations where people say they don't have any free time because they are watching TV."

Balancing work, family, and so-called leisure or "free time" becomes a juggling act in a society where the sense of being "rushed" has increased. Definitions of what people are doing, and why, can become blurred.

Defining free time

"I have four kids," says Daniel Stynes, a professor in the department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Resources at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. "Most of my time when I get home is spent shuttling them around to various activities like soccer games," he says.

"Some of this is leisure activity, I guess, and maybe child-care or other kinds of responsibilities, too."

Like so many other hard-working people, Mr. Stynes likes to sit down to an evening of TV. "My wife tells me it's bad," he says, "and I tell her it relieves stress when I get home.

"Society would like to say that certain forms of leisure are good and others forms are bad," he adds. "Watching TV limits the environmental impact on our natural resources. If everybody was doing outdoor activities, we would have a lot more problems."

But despite the pleasant sponge effect of TV on so many people, Godbey found conflicting opinions indicating a love-hate relationship. "When we ask people how satisfying TV is, it doesn't rate very high," says Godbey. "And if they are asked to cut something out of their schedule, TV is the first thing they would cut."

Edginton predicts more and more people will sit behind a computer using the Internet for leisure, too. "It will become a major focus for people's leisure," he says.

"We have a work-hard, play-hard style," he says, "and it's not that people don't have more time; it's just that quickened pace of life creates the perception of the time crunch being there."

To escape, people are likely to continue their TV-watching habits. TV-Free America, a national nonprofit organization, says in a 65-year lifetime, the average American will sit in front of a TV set for nine years.

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