The Leisure Gap

greyflannelsuit.jpgBelieve it or not there was a time when serious people worried about modern man having too much leisure time. Way back in the nineteen fifties, the leisure of the professional class was considered a serious problem. The man in the grey flannel suit was assumed to face dissolute life of martinis and marital infidelity after he got home on the five-thirty train. And let’s not even get started on what the ladies were getting up to now that they had dishwashing machines, vacuum cleaners and antibiotics were making household cleanliness much less important.
For most of our readers the “problem of leisure” probably sounds like a joke. Leisure time has moved into the dark—it happens late at night, when it happens at all, or between deals. Or between jobs. Vacations and weekend plans get cancelled. Nightlife is all but unplanable. You simply do whatever is going on with whoever is going out.
As it turns out, this is not as widespread of a phenomenon as it might seem. As Steven Landsburg points out on Slate.com, the average guy actually has more leisure time.

In 1965, the average man spent 42 hours a week working at the office or the factory; throw in coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and commuting time, and you’re up to 51 hours. Today, instead of spending 42 and 51 hours, he spends 36 and 40. What’s he doing with all that extra time? He spends a little on shopping, a little on housework, and a lot on watching TV, reading the newspaper, going to parties, relaxing, going to bars, playing golf, surfing the Web, visiting friends, and having sex. Overall, depending on exactly what you count, he’s got an extra six to eight hours a week of leisure—call it the equivalent of nine extra weeks of vacation per year.
For women, time spent on the job is up from 17 hours a week to 24. With breaks and commuting thrown in, it’s up from 20 hours to 26. But time spent on household chores is down from 35 hours a week to 22, for a net leisure gain of four to six hours. Call it five extra vacation weeks.

Of course, for ten percent of America—that’s you, so pay attention—leisure time has been rapidly vanishing. Landsburg concludes with an interesting thought experiment—using government to redistribute the leisure gains and losses.

… a certain class of pundits and politicians are quick to see any increase in income inequality as a problem that needs fixing—usually through some form of redistributive taxation. Applying the same philosophy to leisure, you could conclude that something must be done to reverse the trends of the past 40 years—say, by rounding up all those folks with extra time on their hands and putting them to (unpaid) work in the kitchens of their “less fortunate” neighbors. If you think it’s OK to redistribute income but repellent to redistribute leisure, you might want to ask yourself what—if anything—is the fundamental difference.


The Theory of the Leisure Class

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Comments (6)

  1. Posted by Lord Marchmain | March 12, 2007 at 1:18 PM

    “…dissolute life of martinis and marital infidelity…”
    “Dissolute”??! Sounds like a good time actually.

  2. Posted by Give-Up Agreement | March 12, 2007 at 1:20 PM

    As much as I would greatly enjoy a greater portion of leisure time (yes, I do realize the redistribution argument is facetious), isn’t the fact that we 10% of Americans work harder than everyone else – and are able to keep a good portion of the wealth we create (and not let the tax man take most of it away) the thing that distinguishes us from loser EU countries like France and Germany?
    Keep the government away from my money and my leisure, please.

  3. Posted by Boy Mulcaster | March 12, 2007 at 4:38 PM

    Hard-working Americans? It’s a myth. Americans work no harder than anyone else. You can see it for yourself. There are tens of millions of idle Americans in places such as Bronx, southcentral LA, or inner-city Chicago. Americans are so lazy that we have to import workers from other countries. Like the old-time slave-owners in the South, Americans would rather use others to do the dirty work.

  4. Posted by Anonymous | March 13, 2007 at 12:52 PM

    the idea of taxing leisure is an old problem in tax policy — tax on income, especially the more severe the graduation, creates disincentives to work. accordingly, to solve this problem one can either reduce taxes on income or tax leisure as imputed income.

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