Time Is Not On America's Side

Most of us turn time into money regularly. While the rate of exchange--our wage rate--may not be all we would like, making this swap is no great feat. Turning money into time is much harder. There are, of course, ways to perform the 20th century version of alchemy-you can hire a gardener and a housekeeper, for example. But, in general, we have only limited opportunities to buy time with money.

In that sense, the ultimate scarce resource for many people is not money but time. How people spend their time may reveal more about a society than how they spend their money. Unfortunately, while mountains of statistics and volumes of research testify to how people use their money, we have only fragmentary evidence on how they use their time. That's why a research paper by F. Thomas Juster and Frank P. Stafford, just published in The Journal of Economic Literature and excerpted in the Conference Board's Economic Times, is so fascinating.

The two University of Michigan economists review survey data on time usage accumulated over two decades and cover a variety of countries. The data come from time diaries, which, while far from perfect, provide the most accurate measurements we have. In this short space, I will focus on recent comparisons between Americans and the allegedly superefficient and highly motivated Japanese. In general, the statistics do not suggest that Americans are fat and lazy. But they do raise some disquieting concerns about the future. At the broadest level, Americans (in 1981) and Japanese (in 1985) spent their time in strikingly similar ways. Out of each 168-hour week, Americans on average devoted 56 hours to work, 70 hours to sleeping, eating, and other personal care, and 42 hours to leisure activities. Japanese allocated 56 hours to work, 72 to sleeping and other necessary activities, and 40 hours to everything else. At this level, life in Osaka looks much like life in Chicago.

TV GAP. But differences, some expected and some surprising, emerge when we peer below the surface. Take the breakdown of total work into work in the home and work for pay. The typical Japanese man devotes considerably more hours to his job than the typical American man (52 vs. 44, including commuting time). But he puts in vastly fewer hours at home (3.5 vs. 13.8). In total, American men worked about 2.3 hours a week more than Japanese men. Did you know that? I didn't. By the way, women in both countries put in almost exactly the same workweek: about 31 hours at home and 24 in the workplace.

The two peoples spent their leisure time differently. A typical American's 41.8 hours of leisure per week broke down as follows: 16.3 hours socializing with friends or family, 12.1 hours watching TV, and the remaining 13.4 hours on all other leisure activities. The Japanese spent much less time socializing (only 7.5 hours), much more time watching TV (19.4 hours), and the same 13.4 hours on everything else. The puny amount of socializing may reflect the Japanese custom of concentrating such activities in the workplace. But I think Americans can take solace in the data on couch potatoes. If Japanese television is as mind-numbing as American TV, we may yet win the competitive race. Stay tuned.

The numbers get worrisome when you look at the way schoolchildren allocated their time. During elementary school, Japanese kids spent 52% more hours in the classroom than American children. In junior high school and high school, the gap widened to about 60%. But the homework comparison was even more lopsided. In primary school, Japanese youngsters spent 8.3 hours a week studying, while American kids spent just 1.8 hours. In junior high school, the gap grew astonishingly, to 16.2 hours vs. 3.2 hours. And in high school, it was 19 hours vs. 3.8. In addition, Japanese kids spent two to three times as many hours reading as American kids did.

THE ROTE THING. If we count homework time and classroom time as equal and ignore outside reading, 12 years of Japanese education are equivalent (in terms of time spent) to 22.3 years of American education. Yes, I know we emphasize creativity and thinking while they emphasize rote learning, but 10.3 years does seem a big handicap-provided you wish to train a modern industrial work force rather than a legion of philosopher-poets.

The news is not all bad. Japanese children actually watch a bit more tv than American children, while our kids devote much more time to playing games and sports. Ours also sleep more. I score each of these comparisons in America's favor.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. A recent survey of 16- to 65-year-olds in Oregon, a state that is certainly not at the bottom of the national literacy scale, found that only 12% of Oregonians could estimate the cost per ounce of peanut butter at $1.59 a pound. Only 18% could use a bus schedule to determine the right bus to take from origin to destination at a prescribed time. But 97% could locate information in a sports article.

Think about this when next you sit by your TV watching great American athletes sandwiched between clever, American-made commercials selling high-quality Japanese cars.

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