NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 23, 2007

Considering rising business productivity and the spread of labor-saving household appliances, Americans today must have far more leisure than their counterparts in 1900, right?  Well, maybe not.  It depends on how you measure work and leisure and which sectors of the population are included in the analysis, says the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

In "A Century of Work and Leisure," researchers Valerie Ramey and Neville Francis take a fresh look at work versus leisure trends through the 20th century:

  • They conclude that some 70 percent of the decline in hours worked has been offset by an increase in hours spent in school.
  • Further, contrary to conventional wisdom, average hours spent in "home production" -- that is, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and the like -- are actually slightly higher now than they were in the early part of the last century.
  • Meanwhile, leisure per capita is approximately the same now as it was in 1900.

In looking at housework, the authors rely on a host of studies.  They note that early in the last century, "Having clean clothes, clean dishes, a clean house, and well-cared for children was just another luxury the poor could not afford."  For the poor, many meals consisted of simple, unheated foods; working-class families often could not afford the fuel to cook.

Source: David R. Francis, "Where Did All the Leisure Go?" NBER Digest, February 2007; based upon: Valerie Ramey and Neville Francis, "A Century of Work and Leisure," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 12264, May 2006.

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