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Careers

Relax a Little

A minute here, a minute there, and the next thing you know you're spending more time doing the things you want to do.

Erik Hurst, professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, grades papers while watching TV.

Do we really have more free time? Since 1965, there's been a six- to eight-hour weekly increase in leisure for the average worker age 21 to 65. That amounts to roughly eight to ten weeks of extra vacation a year. The increase is greatest for men with the least education. Some of that may be from involuntary job loss. Highly educated women have gained the least time.

Where's this coming from? Men are working less. Some are stay-at-home dads. For women, all of the increase is from a decline in housework -- less cooking, cleaning, laundry and grocery shopping than 40 years ago.

Are we a nation of slackers? Just the opposite. The fact that we're such a hardworking nation allows us to afford more leisure. With productivity gains, we've become richer as a society. Income per capita has increased dramatically. That gives us more leisure time, either because we buy more appliances to do housework or because we can afford to actually work less.

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What are we doing with ourselves? Roughly two-thirds of the increase in leisure is spent watching television. That's been consistent across population groups since 1965. More recently, we've spent more time on the Internet, less time reading and a little bit more time exercising. We're going to church about a half-hour a week less.

Will the leisurely trend continue? Probably. Because we're retiring earlier and living longer, we'll continue to spend a larger fraction of our life at leisure.

So is the workaholic just an urban myth? There's always one guy in the office who doesn't take vacation time, but most of us do. People feel busier because we're choosing among competing activities. We're trying to get to the gym, see the kids and go to a movie. Leisure time might not be all that relaxing!