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Labor or leisure?

A new economics study by Professor Daniel Hamermesh lends insight into how people spend their free time when their work weeks are shorter.

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This story originally appeared on the Further Findings blog.

Imagine what it would be like to shave 10 hours from your work week. How would you make the most out of your free time? Would you tackle that home improvement project? Attend to that pile of laundry? Or take a nap in the backyard hammock?

According to a new economics study, co-authored by Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at The University of Texas at Austin, people are more likely to put those household chores aside and practice the fine art of relaxation.

To examine how people respond to a permanent cut in work hours, Hamermesh and his colleagues examined data from national time-use diaries in Japan and Korea, two countries that imposed sharp decreases in standard work week hours. The data were collected before and after the changes went into effect.

The researchers broke up time allocations into four categories: Market work (studying, working, commuting to and from the office), household production (childcare, shopping, chores), tertiary activities (sleeping, grooming, eating, sex, medical treatment), and leisure (watching TV, socializing, attending sports events and many others).

Of all the activities, the researchers found channel surfing, snoozing and self-care were the main activities undertaken in the freed-up time.

Analyzing time-use data in Japan from 1976 to 2006, the economists found a significant increase in leisurely activities, particularly watching TV. In Korea, the data culled from 1999 to 2009 show a sharp increase in personal care, particularly grooming, among both men and women.

In both countries, the researchers found no increase in household production activities. Thanks to improvements in household appliances, Hamermesh said people are spending less time in the kitchen and more time enjoying life.

So what does this mean for workers in the United States, a nation known for its population of workaholics? Hamermesh suggests these findings lend insight into how people want to spend their precious free time — and how a shorter workweek can vastly improve the quality of life.

Studies have shown Americans work more hours than most European nations. Even on the weekends, they’re putting the axe to the grindstone instead of enjoying their downtime with friends and family. In addition to working more hours per week than those in other developed countries, Americans retire later and take much shorter vacations.

“Whether other countries would experience similar effects is not clear,” Hamermesh said. “But I like to think the same would occur in the United States — that we would use permanent cuts in work time to enjoy ourselves and take more care of ourselves. Regrettably in the workaholism champion of the Western world, these cuts don’t seem likely any time soon.”

The study, conducted together with Jungmin Lee, a University of Texas at Austin alumnus (Ph.D. Economics, ’03) and associate professor of economics at Sogang University, Korea; and Daiji Kawaguchi, associate professor of economics at Hitotsubashi University, Japan, will be published in the May issue of the American Economic Review.

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