Are we really short of discretionary time?

Even after all the recent work-family balance hype, I still found this comment from Graham Bell in Mark Bahnisch’s good-bye-for-now-because-I-am-too-busy post jaw-droppingly preposterous:

You have here touched on two aspects of life in 2007’s Australia:

[i] The rapidly worsening lack of discretionary time for so many people now, even for pensioners/retirees and the unemployed.

Gosh, imagine how pressed they might be if they actually had to work for money 40-50 hours a week, plus do all the other things that disproportionately fall to those in paid work, such as raising kids and keeping voluntary organisations going. Even for those who genuinely do have a lot on, there is an important distinction made by Michael Bittman, Robert Goodin and others between discretionary time and free time (pdf).

Discretionary time is what we have left after we’ve done enough to earn money, perform household chores and engage in sufficient personal care (eg sleeping). Admittedly, some of the arguments as to what constitutes enough are contentious; but the overall point is a strong one: because many people choose to do more than the minimum necessary across a range of generally essential activities their free time, the time in which they have no commitments, is much less than their discretionary time. Using a 1992 Australian time use survey, they estimate that discretionary time is two to three times as long as free time.

Last week’s HREOC report It’s About Time had pages of suggestions for more laws to send us all home to the family (it’s almost enough to make me feel nostalgic for the left of old, with its complaints about the family as a source of patriarchal oppression, rather than left of today, which sees it as yet another opportunity for more taxation and regulation).

Though its broad agenda is similar, the Relationships Forum Australia report also released last week does contain statistics that should give us pause before seeking legal change. For example, it cites Australia Survey of Social Attitudes data showing that most people think long hours are a matter of choice (those actually working long hours thought this too).

And as I have reported in a previous critique of the familist agenda there is evidence consistent with choice being available and exercised, from the HILDA survey, in people reducing their hours over time. Panel studies like HILDA are invaluable in correcting the illusions created by snapshot-in-time ABS data – just because a quarter of full-time workers report working long hours in consecutive surveys does not mean it is the same people in each survey. So even if we accept that long hours are actually harmful to family relationships (and even that is not as clear as it would intuitively seem) they are surely only likely to be harmful if persistent over a long period of time. If a relationship can’t stand a period of late nights at the office, it wasn’t very strong to begin with.

Yes, a lot of people are busy and do feel pressed for time. But that is mostly because they are trying to achieve a lot in life. Reports like HREOC’s It’s About Time are wrapped in concern for families, but there is an illiberal view of the world behind it: that other people have their priorities wrong, and it is up to HREOC’s taxpayer-funded bureaucrats to set them straight.

10 thoughts on “Are we really short of discretionary time?

  1. My theory is that people go through a variety of moods over each day, week, month and year and when their moods are relatively low, they like to find something external to blame them on. Being too busy is a good one – it justifies being irritable or disengaged while reinforcing one’s sense of moral superiority. If we had a recession, people (including left-wing comentators) would quickly find something else to complain about.


  2. I reckon it’s Daylight Saving. Now that we’re forced to suffer it here in WA I can see how tiring it is. Even I myself have fallen victim to it – you used to get home from work at twilight and water the garden a bit before dinner. Now you arrive home and it’s bright and sunny, so you go to the beach, and when you get home it’s supposedly 8.30PM ! (One blessing – you’ve missed the 7.30 Report). You go to bed late and then have to rush in the morning – no time for a proper breakfast, the garden is parched …..

    The other curse is mobile phones (I’ve never had one). For example last week on a 42 C day my brother, busily going around his building sites, gets a call from daughter at school – it’s swimming training and she left swimsuit at home. Brother thinks “Quicker to go to nearest shopping centre and buy new swimsuit and deliver to school” – but they don’t have her size in school regulation dark blue, so goes to next shop …… a whole afternoon is lost.

    Sp apart from worrying about brain tumours these mobile phones are also busy-making gadgets.

    BTW see how 42 degrees Celsius just doesn’t capture the off-the-scale scorchiness of the old 108 degress Farenheit ? Another loss to the language.

    Those old enough to remember the more leisurely 1950s and 60s will know that it was when the wives and mothers entered the workforce that family life became a rush.


  3. Damien – there’s also this Australian study which showed that DST doesn’t save power because people get up an hour earlier and use power then – so it seems others are able to drag themselves out of bed at an unnatural hour of the morning, in the dark – I prefer to rise with the sun.


  4. Interesting, Andrew. Personally, I can identify with being pressed for time, but that’s only because I set myself so much to do and achieve that I stretch myself quite thinly!

    Having skimmed it, I like Mark Wooden’s piece.


  5. Just think about a world in which the fed. govt. attempted to limit our activities so that we had enough bureaucratically determined “free time” to spend with other people!


  6. The Wednesday Ross Gittins has also had a go at this – you won’t be surprised to find him siding with Relationships Forum Australia. In his column he calls for, among other things, re-regulation of shopping hours.

    Very ‘back to the 50s’ of him, I must say, but I’m sure Ross doesn’t really believe that the world would be a better place if women just stayed home and did the shopping Monday to Friday 9-5 like in the good old days.

    And I have to say I’m less than impressed by a report sponsored by a group consisting of senior partners in law firms, and the like, telling the rest of us that we need to work less and get a life.


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