Laundry Money

2nd September, 2006

The Undercover Economist – FT Magazine

Young Miss Harford is finally asleep, and I’ve had a hearty supper, but instead of chatting to my wife or curling up on the sofa with The New Yorker, I am sitting at the computer writing this article. My wife is working too. I don’t recall my father working in the evenings very often and I’m sure that his father did nothing of the sort. Strange, then, that economists believe we are enjoying more leisure time than ever.

Thanks to the washing machine and the electric iron, the microwave and dishwasher, we are much more productive at home than our grandparents, and similarly much more productive (and thus richer) at work. Pure economic theory tells you little about what that might mean for our leisure time. It is true that we do not need to work as hard to earn the same income or wash the sheets, but higher productivity can also tempt us to work more. Before washer-dryers, few people would have dreamt of washing their clothes after wearing them for just one day, while part-timers at Goldman Sachs are sacrificing more money than part-timers at McDonald’s.

So economists have turned to data instead, generally based on surveys asking people to describe how they spent the previous 24 hours. There has been a vast outpouring of research on the subject, which the American economist Mark Aguiar helped me untangle. And out of the mass of information there are some clear trends.

First, the typical American works less than he or she used to and has more leisure time. This is a long-standing trend that runs back a couple of centuries or so. Men work fewer hours than they did in 1965 and enjoy six to eight hours more leisure per week. Women also do much less housework than they did, and although they are more likely to have jobs, the typical increase in leisure time is still four to eight hours a week.

My wife might disagree with that last point, but so will many other readers. That is perhaps because FT readers are not typical. The people enjoying all this extra leisure are the couch potatoes at the bottom of the heap economically and educationally. “Enjoying” might well be the wrong word, since two-thirds of the extra leisure time for men is spent by men who have no jobs at all and might well wish they did.

At the top of the pile things are different: economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano find that skilled, salaried workers are increasingly likely to work more than 50 hours a week in their main job. FT readers who think their jobs are tougher than those of the previous generation are probably right…

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