Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

What Can We Learn from Time-Use Data?

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

What Can We Learn from Time-Use Data?

Article excerpt

Data on the ways in which people allocate their time among daily activities can be used to answer questions on a broad range of economic and sociological issues

The study of economics often is concerned with optimal decisionmaking in the face of some sort of constraint. Economist Thomas Juster has argued that the ultimate constraint on human activity is time.(1) We are each given 24 hours per day to devote to competing uses, and how we use that time has important implications for our financial security, health, emotional well-being, and general level of happiness. Time-use surveys attempt to measure the numerous and diverse ways in which people use those precious 24 hours.

Time-use data could contribute to research and policy analysis in a number of areas. One area that has recently received considerable attention is the prospect of measuring and valuing unpaid but productive activities (that is, nonmarket work) with the ultimate goal of including the value of these activities in a satellite account of the National Income and Product Accounts. Although the valuation of nonmarket work has been the primary political impetus behind the collection of time-use data, it is by no means the only use of these data. In this article, we discuss some of the many research applications of time-use data.

National estimates

Perhaps the most fundamental application of time-use data would be to provide nationally representative estimates of the amount of time that Americans spend in various activities. The types of activities that could be captured include: productive nonmarket activities such as housework; home maintenance and repairs; child care and care of elderly and disabled persons; leisure activities such as watching television, reading books or magazines, pursuing hobbies, and socializing with friends; and nonproductive, nonleisure activities, such as waiting in line and commuting.(2)

If time-use data were combined with demographic information, such as that available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey (CPS), it would be possible to compare time use across different groups. For example, analysts could compare time spent in housework and child care between men and women; time spent on educational activities between students and nonstudents, or between students at different grade levels; time spent on leisure activities between single and married parents; time spent watching television between persons in families of differing earnings and income levels; and time spent cooking and cleaning between persons with differing levels of market work. Conducting a time-use survey on an ongoing basis would allow researchers to study how the time spend in various activities changes over time.

The availability of national time-use data would also facilitate comparisons of time-use patterns in the United States with patterns in other countries. In addition to comparing measures of material well-being such as GDP, analysts could also study how Americans fare on such nonmaterial dimensions as hours of free time.

Valuing nonmarket work

A long-standing criticism of the U.S. National Income and Product Accounts is that they count only productive activities that take place in the market economy and ignore productive activities that take place outside the market, particularly those done in the home. In recent years, there has been renewed interest, particularly among women's groups, in placing a monetary value on nonmarket work. The 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women stated in its Platform for Action (item 206) that "national, regional and international statistical agencies should measure, in quantitative terms, unremunerated work that is outside national accounts and work to improve methods to assess and accurately reflect its value in satellite or other official accounts that are separate from but consistent with core national accounts. …

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