A different picture of American life

Longtime readers will recall my love affair with the American Time Use Survey. Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls up thousands of Americans, rolling over every day of the year, and asks them to talk through "yesterday." Not a typical day, yesterday. The survey also doesn't ask about any particular category of time; instead, the researchers ask people what they did next, and what they did after that, and so forth. This methodology means people are less likely to give socially desirable answers, and there is no judgment about what a "typical" day might be (which is more about our mental picture of life than reality).

The BLS released this year's study in late June. A few highlights:

Americans do sleep. They sleep quite a bit. Even very busy people! Over the whole population, the average is 8.79 hours/day, which is 8.69 for men, and 8.8 for women. Looking at employed parents of children under age 17, the average is 8.39 hours/day, which is 8.22 for men, and 8.56 for women. Employed women with children under the age of 6 sleep 8.62 hours/day on average. An average does not mean everyone sleeps that much (I average 7.4 hours/day) but it does suggest that the narrative that working moms speak of sleep the way a starving man speaks of food has some holes in it.

Pretty much everyone has leisure time. A full 96 percent of Americans engaged in some sort of leisure on their time diary day. The most common activity was watching TV (79.1% watched on any given day). The average amount of TV watched over the whole population was 2.7 hours/day. If you look at people who did watch TV on their diary day (so taking out the zeros) the average was 3.45 hours/day (3.67 for men, and 3.23 for women).

Parents of young kids did watch less TV -- Employed men with kids under age 6 watched 1.85 hours/day, and employed moms of young kids watched 1.42 hours/day. This fits with the general finding that parents have less leisure time than non-parents. However, the gap isn't quite as big as you might believe. Non-parents averaged 4.5 hours leisure/day (all categories); parents of kids under age 6 averaged 3.3 hours/day.

There is some good news about healthy habits. The proportion of Americans who engaged in sports or exercise on any given day rose from 17 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2016. Also, more of us are cooking -- particularly men! The proportion of men who engaged in food prep and clean-up on any given day rose from 35 percent to 45 percent from 2003 to 2016.

Men still work longer hours for pay than women do. The average man with a full time job worked 8.4 hours/day on the days he worked. The average woman with a full time job worked 7.8 hours/day on the days she worked. Of course, women were still more likely to do unpaid work (housework, childcare) than men, and to do these for longer. However, the amount of housework women did per day (cleaning, laundry) fell from 58 minutes to 52 minutes from 2003 to 2016. It is possible some of these trends will converge over time.

A lot of people appear to be working more flexibly. That is, if you define flexibility as doing some of their work away from their workplace. But this appears to be concentrated more at the upper end of the labor force. A full 43 percent of people with advanced degrees did some (or all) of their work at home on the days they worked, compared with just 12 percent of people with high school diplomas. Note: this doesn't mean people were full-on telecommuting. If you check email for 15 minutes from home at night, that means you did some work at home, regardless of what happened from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All it means is that knowledge work is less place-dependent than it used to be. But we probably knew that...

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8 Responses to A different picture of American life


  1. Angela says:

    Thank you for sharing this- I love hearing the trends!

    The sleep numbers don’t surprise me, but I feel like sleep quality is something that affects parents. I may go to bed at 10 and wake up at 6 or 6:30 for a total of 8-8 1/2 hrs, but if my kid woke up in the middle of the night, it doesn’t feel like a restful sleep

  2. gwinne says:

    The numbers are always fascinating, as an average. But really that doesn’t say much about individual experience, esp if you are an outlier, as I am, for many key areas.

  3. Leanne Sowul says:

    Despite the evidence that we all (including mothers of young kids, like me) are sleeping more than we think– which is great news!– I still understand the narrative of feeling desperate for rest. The amount of sleep often matters less than the quality or consistency. I might have gotten 8 hours last night, but that’s only because I was able to spend almost 9 in bed. That missing hour was spent being woken up multiple times, which definitely resulted in poor quality sleep overall.

    • @Leanne – sleep quality and sleep quantity are definitely different concepts. But knowing at least one part is in place is good. Also, there was another analysis of the ATUS a few years ago that found that being woken up in the middle of the night by the kids is relatively rare after the first year or two. The study was done to show that it was normally mom waking up with the baby (no surprise there) but what I was surprised by was how low a percent of people were up long enough to report it on their time logs (when I am up with the kids I definitely record it — usually don’t record a bathroom break that I go right back down after, though). So sleep when kids are babies, yes, not so great. But they do grow up (if some of ours seem to grow up slower than others!)

  4. Anne says:

    Agreed, these studies are fascinating. And the evidence upholds your suggestion that the tough parts of life stand out more than the (simple) good things even if they are less frequent than we believe.

  5. Phoebe says:

    That is great news about the increase in exercise and health activities – that’s been the case for me as well!

    Yesterday I learned about the diary of Martha Ballard and thought of you. She recorded her daily activities for almost 10,000 days starting 1785. The entire diary can be read online here (although you will need to decipher her handwriting): http://dohistory.org/diary/. There is also a book about it called “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812” by Laurel Ulrich.

    • @Phoebe – wow, fascinating – I will have to check it out. I love primary sources like that.

  6. Lily says:

    I’d love to know how the results of these kinds of ‘recall yesterday’ surveys differ from the ‘estimate your typical day’ surveys and also from ‘actively track your day’ surveys. It’s amazing how much our perceptions differ from reality (although at the end of the day it’s often the perception that matters most for our experience)

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