Time Use in Demography Essay

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Time allocation is a major indicator of social differentiation and stratification. People with high levels of human capital may be better able to trade paid work time for leisure time and purchase time-saving goods and services than people with lower levels of human capital. Moreover, time use decisions have important implications for people’s health, financial security, and general life satisfaction. In addition to personal preferences, myriad norms govern how people should use their time, such as how much time is appropriate to spend at work and how much time is needed to care for family. Thus, at the social level, people’s time use patterns reflect how societies value categories such as work, family, and leisure.


There are three primary ways to measure people’s time use: (1) asking respondents to indicate on questionnaires how much time they spend in various activities; (2) observing people in their daily routines; and (3) prompting respondents to recount their day in a time diary. The time diary has become the preferred methodology because of its accuracy relative to estimates based on questionnaires and cost-effectiveness relative to observational methods.

Time diary methodology requires respondents to provide an account of one or more of their days, or even a week. Because respondents are constrained to a 24-hour period in each day and must recount their activities sequentially (i.e., in the order they occurred throughout the day), it is more difficult to exaggerate time expenditures. It prompts respondents to remember things more precisely than if they are asked to sum all time spent in a single activity, like market work, in a day and is less mentally taxing than responding to survey questions that ask respondents to quickly add up time in various activities. Time diaries also capture the complexity of time use. They indicate multitasking, or when people engage in more than one activity simultaneously, as well as the location and people present for each reported activity. At the same time, diaries are not perfect measures of time use as people may be reluctant to report socially deviant or embarrassing behaviors.

History Of Time Use Data Collection

Although the history of time diary methodology extends back to the mid-1920s, the most comprehensive and well-known time diary study is the 1965 Multinational Comparative Time-Budget Research Project. In this study, 2,000 respondents from 12 countries completed single-day diaries. The Harmonized European Time Use Study was developed between 1996 and 1998 and captured time use data on 20 countries. To date, time diary studies have been administered in over 60 countries spanning North America, South America, Europe, Australia, Africa, and Asia.

In the US, a series of cross-sectional time diary studies based out of the Universities of Michigan and Maryland have been conducted at roughly 10-year intervals since the 1960s. Time diary methodology has become so popular that in January 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics launched the American Time Use Survey, which is now the largest time use survey ever conducted in the world.

Future Directions: Subjective Feelings About Time

Time use data tends to capture the objective measures of people’s time use: what they are doing, where they are doing it, who is accompanying them, and how long they are engaging in their various activities. The sense of pressure and or enjoyment associated with activities is not a major component of most time diary collections, and therefore the field is moving to incorporate methodologies that evaluate the subjective dimensions of time use. One example of this includes experiential sampling studies, or ”beeper” studies where respondents are randomly ”beeped” and asked to report not only what they are doing, but how they feel about their selected activity.


  1. Bianchi, S. M., Robinson, J. P., & Milkie, M. A. (2006) Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. Russell Sage, New York.
  2. Larson, R. & Richards, M. (1994) Divergent Realities: The Emotional   Lives   of Mothers,   Fathers, and Adolescents. Basic Books, New York.
  3. Robinson, J. & Godbey, G. (1999) Time for Life, 2nd edn. Penn State Press, State College, Philadelphia.

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