Clock this: how we spend our time

If you're the kind of person who likes to calculate how many years of your life you've spent sleeping, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just did you a huge favor.

While the average American supposedly spent more than four months of 2003 asleep, almost six weeks watching TV (yes, that's 24 hours per day for six weeks), and 4-1/2 days exercising, Census Bureau officials spent the year collecting data for the BLS on how Americans use their time.

The result is the American Time-Use Survey (ATUS), the most definitive national study of its kind, says John Robinson, director of the American Time-Use Project at the University of Maryland.

"TV remains the dominant free-time activity in America," says Mr. Robinson, who was a part of the first American time-use survey in 1965. Indeed, ATUS - which used a format similar to the Nielsen rating diaries to collect data - reported that Americans watch 2 hours and 34 minutes of TV a day on average, compared with 20 minutes a day exercising and eight minutes a day volunteering or participating in religious or spiritual activities.

Robinson also sees other trends: a decline in men's work hours; an increase in the time men spend on household activities; and a decrease in the time women spend on household activities.

However, a gender gap does persist.

Not only did more women report doing household activities (83 percent of respondents), they also spent more time doing that work: 1 hour and 48 minutes, compared with the 1 hour and 10 minutes men spent. However, men who reported doing household activities spent 2 hours and 15 minutes per day on lawn and garden care, compared with women's hour and 35 minutes. (These figures are averages of all respondents' answers. The graph below reflects only the time of people who reported taking part in those activities.)

He says, she says

Adria Martin, a young mother from Warner Robins, Ga., who was visiting Boston recently, says those numbers match her experience. When her husband, Wayne, starts to protest, she interjects, "Oh, whatever. I clean up after you all the time," teasing him for spending so much time on his riding lawn mower.

But Mr. Martin reminds her that his weekends are occupied by mowing the lawn - a six-hour task - and taking care of the flower beds, since "someone doesn't like to get dirty."

Oh, and then there's football. With 700 channels coming into the Martins' home on DirecTV, Mr. Martin spends Friday to Sunday watching any football game he can find, "which is not unreasonable," he adds.

Of course, he jokes, he also "supervises" their son, Chance, when he watches cartoons. As the boy told his parents at age 5, some shows "have material of a provocative nature."

While that may raise Mr. Martin's tally of hours spent watching TV, it's unlikely to top Ms. Martin's average of eight hours per day.

But that's a recent development.

For the first few years of motherhood, she didn't have time for TV while she cared for her son, worked, and attended classes full time at Mercer University. Her mother and sister often baby-sat, which allowed her to maintain such a full schedule. But the women's unpaid work in the home took up a considerable amount of time.

According to Robinson, one of the reasons the BLS conducted this survey was to assess the amount of unpaid work being done in the country.

In the future...

Economists have traditionally defined work as that which people are paid for doing. Yet determining the value of time that people spend taking care of one another in the home is a key step in recognizing the importance of unpaid work to the well-being of a national economy, says Nancy Folbre, author of "The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values.".

Reassessing the value of unpaid work, says Ms. Folbre, opens up "a whole new world of possible interactions between paid work and unpaid work."

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