Why Low Earners Relax More

By Rick Newman

If extra schooling seems like a lot of effort, get used to it--the smarter you are, the more hours you're likely to work.

It's obvious that there's a big pay gap between people who have more education and people who have less: Doctors and engineers with advanced degrees earn a lot more than high-school grads working blue-collar jobs. It turns out there's also a growing "leisure gap" between more- and less-educated Americans: The more schooling, the less time devoted to leisure.

In a new study published by the American Enterprise Institute, economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst reveal some fascinating facts about how Americans of different educational levels spend their time. The average American adult spent about 32 hours a week working in 2005, the latest year for which data is available, and about 106 hours a week on "leisure," which includes sleeping, eating, watching TV, and most activities you'd think of as forms of relaxing. Men spent about 40 hours a week on work, 106 hours on leisure, and 13 hours on unpaid work like shopping, housekeeping, and car maintenance. Women spent about 26 hours a week on work, 105 hours on leisure, and 23 hours on unpaid work--about 10 hours more than men.

Many people won't be surprised to learn that the amount of time we spend on leisure is falling. Since 1985, weekly leisure time has dropped by about an hour and a half overall. For women, it's fallen more. That's a reversal of the trend from 1965 to 1985, when overall leisure time increased by 5.4 hours. The reasons for the decline: Women are working more, and women and men both spend more time each week on child care.

The leisure gaps are bigger when broken down by education level. Men with more than 12 years of education--at least some college--spent 102 hours each week on leisure. Men with a high-school education or less spent 110 hours a week on leisure. The differences get more stark up and down the education chain. Men with a college degree or more spent the least amount of time on leisure--just 100 hours a week. That's down 6 hours since 1985, the biggest decline among any educational group. At the bottom of the chain, men with less than a high school diploma spent 113 hours a week on leisure. That's 8 hours more than in 1985, the biggest jump of any group. The gaps are similar for women.

It's tempting to imagine that America's professional class has become so enslaved to their BlackBerrys that their graduate degrees have done little more than turn them into workaholics. Or that there's a class of simple, wholesome Americans who simply treasure their free time and would rather relax with their families than work for any amount of money.

That may be part of the story. But another reason undereducated Americans have more leisure time is that unemployment is higher among those with less schooling: If you're not working, you're spending more time on "leisure," whether it's quality time spent with your kids or mindless hours watching cable and waiting for a recruiter to call. Disability rates are also higher among those with less education, which means less time spent on the job. It may also be true that highly educated people enjoy their work more, so they spend more time doing it. (Since the data are from years prior to the current recession, they don't reflect changes that may have resulted from rapidly rising unemployment over the past 12 months.)

Here are some of the most interesting differences in how less-educated men (with 12 years of schooling or less) and more-educated men (with more than 12 years of schooling) spend their time:

Hours spent each week on: Less-educated men More-educated men
Paid work 36.9 41.9
Child care 2.7 3.4
Total leisure 109.8 102.3
Watching TV 21.6 15.3
Socializing 7.1 6.5
Reading 1.2 2.5
Exercise and sport 2.6 3.1
Hobbies 1.9 2.7
Eating 8.2 9.4
Sleeping 60.1 56.5

The leisure data are more than just an interesting snapshot of how Americans spend their time. One of the troublesome developments in the American economy has been an increase in income inequality: The rich have been getting richer, while others have been stuck in place or falling behind. Some economists, including a few who now advise President Obama, want to change tax rates and other policies so that the wealthy take home less pay and others take home more. Aguiar and Hurst argue that their research may show that lower-earning Americans work less--and therefore earn less--because they choose to, not because the system is gamed against them. If that's true, then efforts to redistribute wealth may be directed at people who don't want it--not if they have to work for it, anyway. That hypothesis seems sure to draw vigorous rebuttals, which means we may end up spending more of our leisure time arguing about leisure.