Many people believe that Americans are overworked, but new
research shows that Americans are spending less time at work and
more time at leisure than ever before. That research's key
- Since the mid-1960s, the amount of time that the typical
American spends working fell by almost eight hours per week, while
the time spent on leisure activities rose by just under seven hours
- This additional leisure time is equivalent to an extra seven to
nine weeks of vacation per year. Workers' incomes would rise by
over $5,000 per year if they worked these hours instead of enjoying
- The amount of money Americans spend on recreation has steadily
risen since 1970, and more Americans take part in various
recreational activities than a generation ago.
- Americans have enjoyed upwards leisure mobility since the
mid-1960s, but leisure has increased unequally. Less educated and
lower-income Americans now work less and enjoy more leisure than
Americans with higher incomes. This explains part of why they have
The economy has produced large and important gains in the
non-material well-being of the American people, but the debate over
living standards and inequality has ignored this important fact.
Before it embarks on policies to redistribute income to reduce
inequality, Congress should recognize that lower-income Americans
have disproportionately benefited from the increase in leisure over
the past generation.
Fewer Hours at Work
The popular perception is that the average American is
overworked and does not have enough time to enjoy life. New
research, however, challenges this conventional wisdom.
Economists Mark Aguiar, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston,
and Erik Hurst, of the University of Chicago, examined five decades
of time diary surveys administered by research universities and the
government. Researchers regard time diary surveys as
one of the most reliable ways to find out how much time people
spend on a given activity. Aguiar and Hurst distinguished between time
spent working for wages in the marketplace and time spent working
at home doing things such as cleaning or maintenance. They also
adjusted their figures to account for outside factors, such as age,
marital status, and the presence of children that affect the time
spent in work and leisure.
They found that the amount of time Americans spend working has
fallen by almost 8 hours per week since 1965. This single figure
obscures different trends between the sexes. Men today are working
just under 40 hours per week at paid jobs, which is 11.6 fewer
hours than in 1965. This figure includes work-related
activities such as commuting to work. That decrease is offset by a
3.7-hour-per-week increase in time spent on household work, such as
vacuuming or shopping for groceries. Overall, men work 7.9 fewer
hours per week than men a generation ago, leaving today's men with
more time to spend with family and friends and pursuing their own
Women also spend less time working today than four decades ago,
but for different reasons. Women today spend 11.1 fewer hours per
week performing household chores than before. At the same time,
more women have entered the workforce, boosting the amount of time
the typical woman spends working in the market by 3.0 hours per
week. Women today, overall, work approximately 8
fewer hours per week than women in 1965.
Many other researchers have looked at the data and concluded
that Americans are working less and enjoying more leisure time. The
popular perception of the overworked American is wrong: At home and
at work, Americans work less than ever before.
More Time and Money at Play
As Americans have had to spend less time working to earn a
living, they have had more time to spend doing things they enjoy.
Aguiar and Hurst also examined changes in the amount of time
Americans spend at leisure. Looking at the amount of time Americans
spend on entertainment, social activities, relaxing, napping,
eating, and playing with children, Americans enjoy about 7 hours
per week more leisure than in 1965.
This represents a significant increase in the average American's
quality of life. Americans today have significantly more to devote
to their own pursuits than did Americans a generation ago.
Other evidence about how Americans spend their time and money
confirms that Americans enjoy more leisure than ever before. For
example, the amount that Americans spend on recreation has steadily
risen over the past generation. (See Tables 3 and 4.) Today, 8.7
percent of personal consumption is spent on recreation, up from 6.6
percent in 1970. In dollar terms, the increase is even more
striking. In real terms, Americans today spend $2,500 per person on
recreation each year, about three times the $850 spent per person
Americans today are also participating in more recreational
activities than their parents did. Table 5 shows how participation
in various pastimes has risen between 1985 and 2004. A
significantly larger proportion of Americans participate in golf
and tennis than did twenty years ago, and Americans are also seeing
more movies in the theaters. (And that does not account for the
enormous increase in the quality of home entertainment systems.)
Compared to 1970, Americans are spending twice as much per person
each year today on movies and sporting events. (See Table 6.)
Many measures reflect Americans' increased leisure consumption.
Attendance at sporting events like Major League Baseball games has
skyrocketed. (See Table 7.) Because they have more free time, more
Americans can go out to the ballgame with their families and
friends. And more Americans are going abroad than ever before. The
proportion of Americans who travel overseas in a given year has
more than tripled since 1970. (See Table 8.)
Quality of Life
Seven hours of additional leisure time per week might not seem
like a lot, but it represents an 11 to 13 percent decrease since
1965 in the amount of time Americans spend working. If
Americans took that leisure time all at once, it would amount to an
extra 6.6 to 9 weeks of vacation per year. The average
American's annual income would rise by $5,000 to $5,500 if he or
she chose to work those extra hours rather than spend them at
leisure. That would represent a 13 to 14 percent raise.
Some people do make that choice and do work longer hours for
higher wages. Most Americans, however, have declined that choice.
The prosperity that has given modern Americans more material goods
than any society ever also allows Americans to spend more time
doing the things they enjoy. Americans today have more time for
family, friends, community, hobbies, and pastimes than 40 years
ago. Americans' having more time for these pursuits does not show
up in economic reports, but it means that Americans today enjoy a
significantly higher quality of life than their parents and
Largely as a result of the increase in the value of a college
education, income inequality has widened over the past generation.
What has attracted less attention is the fact that "leisure
inequality" has also widened--in the opposite direction. Americans
with at least some college education have enjoyed a substantially
smaller increase in leisure time than Americans with only a high
school diploma or less.
In the 1960s, both highly educated and less educated Americans
had approximately the same amount of leisure. Today, highly
educated American men enjoy more leisure than such men in the 1960s
but 6.8 fewer hours of leisure a week than American men who have
not earned more than a high school diploma. Similarly, highly
educated American women also have more time off than a generation
ago but still 4.4 hours per week less leisure time than their less
educated peers. The growing economy has allowed Americans
to spend less time at work, and that has particularly benefited
Americans with less education.
This trend is also reflected in government poverty data. The
fifth of working age Americans with the lowest earnings work half
as many hours as those in the top fifth.
Americans with less education and lower incomes may choose to
work shorter hours than those with more education due to, in part,
performance pay. The increased use of performance pay over the past
generation explains a substantial portion of the increase in
inequality over that time. Companies pay more productive workers
more when they perform well, and this motivates them to work longer
hours. Many Americans with less education could trade off longer
hours for higher incomes, but choose not to.
Congress should certainly look to remove barriers that prevent
workers from becoming more productive, but the fact that some
workers choose to enjoy more leisure and lower incomes does not
indicate a problem with "inequality" or call for redistribution of
income. A person's life does not consist of the abundance of his or
her possessions, and Congress should not look only at material
inequality, while ignoring leisure, before concluding that American
society is too unequal.
The stereotype of the overworked American is wrong. Americans
work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure than ever before. The
average American today works 8 hours less per week and enjoys 7
hours more leisure per week than in 1965. Americans today can earn
a good living while having time free to focus on their own
pursuits. Americans now spend more on recreation, enjoy more
pastimes, and travel more than a generation ago. If Americans
traded this new leisure time for more time at work, individual
incomes would rise by an extra $5,000 a year, on average.
Americans from all backgrounds enjoy more leisure than a
generation ago, but leisure has not increased equally. More highly
educated and higher income Americans enjoyed a smaller increase in
leisure than Americans with no more than a high school education.
Congress should not ignore this rapid upwards leisure mobility, and
its distribution among Americans, when it confronts the issue of
James Sherk is Bradley
Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis at The
Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, "Measuring Trends in Leisure: The
Allocation of Time Over Five Decades," NBER Working Paper No.
12082, March 2006, at www.nber.org/papers/W12082.
Researchers have found that surveys such as the Current Population
Survey that ask only about hours of work tend to overstate hours
worked. See John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, Time for
Life. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,
1999), and Thomas Juster and Frank Stafford, Time Goods and
Well-Being, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1985).
Aguiar and Hurst looked only at Americans between the ages of 21
and 65 in order to avoid confusing increased time in school or
longer life expectancies with less work.
Aguiar and Hurst, pp. 14-16.
John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, and Jeremy Greenwood and
Guillaume Vandenbroucke, "Hours Worked: Long-Run Trends," NBER
Working Paper No. 11629, 2005.
Ibid., pp. 22-26. Leisure here refers to leisure measure 3
in the text.
Note that the increase in leisure is less than the decrease in work
because some activities, such as visiting the doctor and attending
college, are considered neither leisure nor work.
Heritage Foundation calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau
Aguiar and Hurst, p. 3.
Ibid., pp. 26-29 and Table 6.
Robert Rector and Rea S. Hederman, Jr., "Two Americas: One Rich,
One Poor? Understanding Income Inequality in the United States,"
Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1791, August 24, 2004,
Thomas Lemieux, W. Bentley MacLeod, and
Daniel Parent, "Performance Pay and Wage Inequality," NBER Working
Paper No. 13128, May 2007, at www.nber.org/papers/w13128.