- - Wednesday, September 18, 2019


One-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty minutes. Twenty-four hours. One day. Time is the great equalizer, available and necessary to each of us. Every single thing we do has a temporal component. It’s no wonder that humans are obsessed with understanding how we use up our most precious resource, both individually and as a society. What is fascinating, however, is that we seem to be unable to accurately answer a fairly simple question: What do we really do all day?

“What We Really Do All Day: Insights from the Centre for Time Use Research” by Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan analyzes data from the most recent National U.K. Time Diary Survey in 2014-15, as well as historical data from similar time-use surveys dating back to 1961. In a text that leans past academic into monotony, the authors and their colleagues extract intriguing conclusions out of their enormous and impressive studies.

A time diary survey is a simple log of what a person did in a day, in their own words. For the authors’ studies, there are 250 categories into which an activity can be coded, which for the purposes of analysis have here been simplified to nine: “leisure” is a different activity than “paid work” which is different from “unpaid work.” This type of survey on this scale — 8,000 people across 4,000 households in the 2014-15 study — could be used by creative researchers in many fields to gain insights into the U.K. population.

The authors do a good job of dispelling certain myths about our use of time, but only as far as their survey will allow. They show, for example, that contrary to what many people feel intuitively to be true, we are not busier today than we were in 1961, nor do we sleep substantially less. There are changes, naturally, but they are not as drastic as common rhetoric would suggest. While they do identify several explanations for why we might feel these myths to be true, their arguments leave the reader somewhat dissatisfied, as they are not conclusive but merely some of many possibilities.

One of the major categories that the authors break out repeatedly is gender. The average man and the average woman spend their days differently, with women’s time being consumed by unpaid labor at a higher rate than men’s. The authors optimistically see men performing more unpaid labor and spending more time with children than in the past: The gap, it appears, still exists but is closing. 

The issue here is, time is not the same as work. These distinctions don’t identify the work actually accomplished, or the feminist concept of the mental load — women’s managerial role in the household — and so they cannot identify the actual experience of the gender balance of, for example, cleaning. Standing in the bathroom with a rag is not the same as cleaning the bathroom, though both would likely be coded the same way by those performing the task, and so it is difficult to say how much labor is actually being performed by an individual. This is the gaping hole in time-use studies that show discrepancies between unpaid and paid labor closing, and while this is the most obvious example, it stands to reason that other categories are likewise affected.

The authors repeatedly identify ways in which their time-use diaries are crucial, and for whom. For example: Time-use diaries do better identify the unpaid labor in the home performed primarily by women, challenging estimates of how much work a nation as a whole performs. Time-use diaries help us to understand the relationship between health and exercise: given how drastically people overestimate their own time spent exercising, the amount of exercise needed to gain health benefits may be substantially less than we think. Time-use diaries help us understand the impact of technology on family time, the needs of the elderly, and even, going all the way back to the 1960s, what the surveys were originally for — what should be on TV at what time to reach the right demographic.

One major issue is that this data requires an enormous leap of faith to accept. Anyone who has tried to log their activities with this degree of granularity will, I am sure, have doubts about the ability of time-pressed British citizens to account for their time down to 10-minute intervals without the fabrication and reconstruction their study claims to do away with. It would be interesting to compare self-reported diaries to video-assisted diaries coded by trained researchers. Additionally, much in the same way the simple act of writing down what one eats changes eating habits, the actual recording of time use always changes actual behavior as well. Survey designers do have ways of combatting these problems, and a truly committed reader may, of course, peruse the survey results and read the methodology reports themselves if they want to spend the time.

• Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).

• • •


By Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan

Pelican Books, $17.95, 351 pages

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide