Work and life in balance

The 2006 ABS time use survey results were issued today, giving us another chance to review the claims of left-familists that our time needs their regulation.

The ABS classifies time according to activities, but also into the categories of ‘necessary time’, such as sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene; ‘contracted time’, such as work or education which have specific time obligations; ‘committed time’, such as child care, domestic duties and voluntary work, and ‘free time’, what’s left.

All household types record a slight drop in ‘free time’, by 0.5% to 2.1% of the day, between 1997 and 2006. Most household types also saw slight drops in ‘necessary time’. For households with kids, the greatest gains were in ‘contracted time’, with increases ranging from 0.9% for couples with kids over 15 to 5% for lone parents with kids under 15. Except for the latter group, there were also gains in ‘committed time’.

So does that ‘contracted time’ figure mean people are working longer hours? In 2006, the average man who had a job spent 7 hours and 56 minutes at work and 58 minutes on associated travel. In 1997 he spent 8 hours and 3 minutes at work and 60 minutes travelling. In 1992 he spent 7 hours and 53 minutes at work and 54 minutes travelling. (I’m getting the comparison figures from How Australians Use Their Time 1997.) So there is really no trend here. Even the traffic problems constantly in the news are hard to see in these figures.

For women, same story. 1992: 6 hours 31 minutes at work and 45 minutes travel. 1997: 6 hours 41 minutes and 53 minutes travel. 2006: 6 hours 31 minutes and 51 minutes travel.

The increase in ‘contracted time’ between 1997 and 2006 reflects the fact that more people have jobs, not that they are working longer.

In line with previous research, parents feel like they are busy. In couple families with kids under 15, 61% of men and 67% of women ‘often/always feel rushed for time’. The national averages are 43% for men and 47% for women. Yet the satisfaction with use of time for couples with kids is similar to the national average, with 62% of men satisfied and 61% of women, compared to 64% for both sexes as the national average. People who have kids know that it will make them busy, and think that it is worth it.

There is no evidence here of a work-life crisis here, nor of any increasing ‘imbalance’ over time. On average, people look like they have close to the 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours of other activities that was once the left’s goal.

16 thoughts on “Work and life in balance

  1. Struth – that was hard to read. How many numbers are there in every sentence? You should submit this post for psychological evaluation – your obsession with numbers is getting out of control.

    Your first sentence is wrong – it isn’t that left-familists claim that our time needs their regulation, but that our time needs protecting from the demands of others.

    I was just driving in to work listening to Life Matters on RN and the American author interviewed was talking about the stress of ‘menopause meets adolesence’: the result of delaying having children means it is harder for parents to cope because at a time when they have stressful careers etc they also have teenagers at home, plus their brain function (memory etc) is sharply declining.
    So their ‘committed time’ might be the same in terms of minutes, but more stressful than committed time was for parents 30 years ago. If ‘committed time’ is more stressful, and ‘contracted time’ is more stressful (constant change and upskilling), we obviously need more ‘free time’ to stay sane.


  2. Russell,

    there’s no overall brain function decline of any meaningful significance (excluding the dementias which only affect 5% of the population) until quite late in life (70+). Even then, on an indiviudal level, there are huge differences — if I remember correctly, around half of all 90 year olds, for example, have almost no decline across a wide range of cognitive abilities (of course, the other half do). The reason people believe this is that most of the old data studies looking at IQ over a life span used a cross-sectional design and were contaminated by various things that made it appear that the decline was far more than it really is. Much more recent studies (or at least data from), tracked people longitudinally, although these studies are yet to reach pop-psychology.
    Oddly enough, I have heard the same thing mentioned about older parents having trouble with children as you did. However, the reason I heard was that it was more to do with generational gaps. I’d personally like to see real data on older parents and the problems they have before believing any of it.


  3. Conrad – Though Russell is less than 70, and he is struggling with all the numbers in my post:)

    OK, paragraphs 4 and 5 are a bit number-heavy. The one sentence version: claims that work is increasingly encroaching on the average person’s time are incorrect.


  4. Andrew I read these results differently – from Table 3 it is clear that partnered fathers and mothers with children under 15 years have the least free time of any household type, that mothers have a bit less free time than fathers and that there has been a decline in free time since 1997, but that the decline in free time is proportionately greatest for parents. For both males and females a single person under 65 years has roughly 50% more free time than do couples with children.


  5. Peter – The trouble with table 3 is that it is all persons. With an employment to population ratio nearly 4% higher in 2006 than 1997 average work hours will have increased simply because more people are working, not necessarily because peope are working longer (the biggest jump in hours is among single parents, presumably the welfare to work reforms that started in 2006 taking lots of people from zero hours to some hours). The calculations above are from table 4 and equivalents in 1997, looking only at those who are actually working. There has been no signficant change.

    Table 12 has work hours for fathers of children under 15; they work shorter hours than men overall, and their wives work shorter hours than women generally.

    We hardly need the ABS to tell us that children are time consuming, but of course this is the parent’s choice (and we should not assume that looking after children is simply a chore, any more than we should assume that working is simply a chore).

    It is not a public policy problem unless there are things that can be controlled by laws (eg work) are unreasonably encroaching on this time. There is no evidence that this is the case on average, and as I have noted in previous posts on this subject only a minority of people working long hours do so on a long-term basis and they aren’t less satisfied with their family relationships than people working shorter hours.


  6. Russell, you do understand that most people who delay having children are actually making a choice to do that don’t you? Presumably most have weighed up the various pros and cons before making their decision.

    And for some people one of the side-effects of delaying having children might be that by the time they are teenagers and/or you are hitting the menopause you might actually be in a position to downshift your life a bit. On the other hand, since I assume it is mothers who are having all this menopausal trouble with teenagers, perhaps it is time for their dads to step in and pick up the slack 🙂

    But you must forgive me if I seem to be rambling – it’s just my menopausally-muddled teenager-beseiged brain letting me down again


  7. “For both males and females a single person under 65 years has roughly 50% more free time than do couples with children.”

    Peter – tell that to all the child-free, who think they don’t get their fair share of benefits from that status.

    But I must stop before we get into the old argument about how children are all benefit/enjoyment and no cost/work/aggravation.


  8. But I must stop before we get into the old argument about how children are all benefit/enjoyment and no cost/work/aggravation.

    I can’t recally anyone saying anything like that. The key point of the argument was the benefits and costs of children, whatever their extent, as essentially private, and flow from the lifestyle decisions of parents. The issue is why childfree people should have to subsidise parents for their lifestyle choices. The fact that the costs of those choices, whether it be in time, expenses or income forgone, is high is essentially irrelevant to that debate.


  9. BG – I was only relaying the insights of the interviewee (and she HAS been published in Oprah Magazine!).
    “Russell, you do understand that most people who delay having children are actually making a choice to do that don’t you? Presumably most have weighed up the various pros and cons before making their decision”
    We must know different sorts of people – most people I know never really weighed up anything, they just went ahead with what they were doing – study, job, travel – and then found they were in their 30s and hadn’t yet come across the person they wanted to have children with.


  10. Russell, I have no doubt that there are people to whom life just happens (including a surprising number of pregnancies, by all accounts), but most people do make decisions along the way – study, jobs, travel, for example. Presumably those things are more important than settling down and having children at the time.

    Maybe they don’t go to the extent of sitting down and working out a balance sheet, but somewhere in their heads they are weighing things up and deciding what will ‘maximise their utility’. But really, pardon me if I don’t feel that the government (or someone) needs to protect the ‘free time’ of middle-aged people who have teenagers, because they were too busy in their 20s having a good time and doing whatever they felt like doing.


  11. BG – balance sheets, pros and cons, decisions …. how tedious. I was pleased to see Maxine McKew praise her convent school for nurturing a love for “friendship, beauty and the life of the mind” in her maiden speech.
    Another phrase that needs reviving is “the art of living” – something we seem to have lost (while out shopping?) – ABS statistics and balance sheets aren’t going to get near to defining it though.


  12. Tom N

    At the risk of reigniting the debate about family policy, the essence of the argument is that not all of the benefits of children are private, but that there are significant benefits in the longer run even to people who do not currently have children and also to those who will never have children. Even if it would be possible to achieve these benefit completely through immigration, this does not mean that the private choice to have children does not have wider social benefits.

    A noted long ago this does not mean that current policy has the right balance between public and private costs, but it does imply a rationale for public support (which can then be debated)


  13. Even if it would be possible to achieve these benefit completely through immigration, this does not mean that the private choice to have children does not have wider social benefits.

    Even if we assume, for the purposes of argument, that children-bearing confers net external benefits (rather than net external costs), if it is possible to obtain the same external benefits more cheaply through other means, then there would be no case for government subsidies for children-bearing to obtain those benefits.


  14. Now, Russell, surely you aren’t suggesting that the capacity to make one’s own decisions and take responsibility for the consequences are incompatible with “friendship, beauty and the life of the mind” or even the “art of living”?

    My point is that there are some people who always seem to be able to see the downside of everything, but little or none of the upside – and also seem to think that someone else has made every one of life’s decisions for them.

    IE If you delay having children for whatever reason, that means you will be older when your kids are teenagers and there is an increased risk that you will be: a) going through menopause; b) having to look after aged parents; c) in a responsible job. All fairly obvious if you stop to think about it.

    Life with teenagers is not always (hardly ever) easy, true, but I would have thought that part of the “art of living” involves not endlessly beating either your own breast or someone else’s over things that are really just the facts of life.


  15. Just as (I’m sure Tom N would agree with this at least) it isn’t really reasonable for parents to complain that because they have children they have less free time than people who don’t. You should know that when you (decide to) have kids.


  16. BG – thank you for your explanation of the facts of life. Somehow I don’t think it would be accepted for publication by Oprah Magazine.

    Are you agreeing with my original comment that since ‘contracted’ and ‘committed’ time are becoming more stressful we need more free time for practising the art of living? (Think Stuart Wagstaff in those old Benson & Hedges ads: silk cravats, sophisticated cigarettes ….)


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