As someone who lives in one of the wealthiest times and places in human history, there is one thing I want more of more than anything else: time. More time to sleep. More time to play with my children. More time to clog up people’s inboxes with meandering blog posts.
Contrary to how it might feel, economic growth has brought us all more time. We work less, we live longer, and we can do domestic tasks more quickly. One hundred years into the industrial revolution, in 1860, the average working Briton worked a 66 hour week and had a life expectancy of around 40. Now we average 31 hours of work a week and expect to live past 80.
We’re very lucky to benefit from that, but there’s no reason our progress has to stop there. Unfortunately, it has stopped, in tandem with the slowdown in economic growth. Life expectancy and working hours have plateaued, while retirement ages are getting later in many countries.
Although productivity growth and free time are intimately linked — we can, like the French, choose to spend the gains of higher productivity on more free time if we wish — the way we value time is often inconsistent. The time we spend working tends to be highly valued, by employers, governments and official statistics. Our leisure time — the bit most of us want more of — tends to be valued somewhat less. And of course some of the most undervalued time is among the most vital — the time we spend caring for children, parents, relatives and doing other unpaid work in our homes.
Time isn’t always money, at least not as recorded in the national accounts. But in this piece I want to explore here whether time — and how we use it — should play a bigger role in how we think about our quality of life.
The value of leisure time
Unlike some things, economists do value time rather well. For example, our system for deciding which transport projects offer the best value for money relies heavily on the value of the journey time saved by new transport links. It values an hour of time saved on the commute to work at over £10 and an hour of other non-work travel at under £5 an hour (both in 2010 prices). These values are derived from people’s willingness to pay for time saving in experiments — perhaps nothing sums up better our prioritisation of work over leisure.
But leisure time is clearly something we value. If the average Briton still worked the typical 66 week of the early industrial revolution, our wages could be twice as high (although that assumes no loss of productivity or wages, which feels unlikely on such a punishing schedule). As we got richer during the first half of the 20th century, we chose as a society to spend more time away from work — with weekends and holidays and more manageable working hours.
But most of the drop in average working hours was done by the 1970s, and hours worked have reduced much more slowly since then. At the same time, more women have entered the labour market, increasing the number of dual earner households. According to Nobel Prize winner Claudia Goldin, this was driven primarily by the incentive of higher incomes. Once again, it seems we tend to prioritise money over time.
Estimates of leisure time for the UK suggest the average working age man spends 325 minutes on leisure activities each day, while the average woman has 285 minutes of leisure time per day. This gender disparity appears to exist in every country covered by the data.
Of course, the other big change in how we use our time — partly driven by living longer — is that we now hope to enjoy at least a decade or two in retirement. The need to save for retirement may be an additional reason to seek extra income. There certainly seems to be a pay-off to this retirement; many measures of subjective wellbeing find an increase in happiness and other markers of wellbeing after the age of 55.
The value of seeing family
As the economy has become more productive, it has dispersed people more widely around the world. In the past — and still in some countries — many people would have lived where they grew up, close to their families. The modern economy has concentrated people in places where they can be most productive — often in cities — which has sometimes meant dispersing traditional family units.
But alongside the productivity gains, there are unmeasured losses. The decline of multi-generational households has reduced the scope for free childcare — grandparents and other relatives helping to raise children.
People also travel more to see friends and family — around 25% of overseas journeys from the UK are for that purpose. This travel has been enabled by modern transport, but it’s not necessarily a welfare gain. (Of course, the value of this shift plays out differently for different people. Many people are quite happy to keep a distance from their families, or find freedom in the anonymity of a city.)
The value of time with children
One of the most surprising changes of recent decades is the amount of extra time we spend with our children. Parents in most developed countries spend more time with children than in previous decades. In the USA, each parent spends 1.3 hours a day with their children on average — although this rises to 2.6 hours for mothers of children under 6.
Whether this reflects increased pressure on parents or a wilful choice enabled by more free time, there is surely a clear beneficiary from this change: children. There are few things more important to a child’s development and future happiness than having nurturing and attentive parents.
It is possible we might see some effect from this extra parental input in the productivity statistics — human capital is, after all, one of the key inputs to growth. The UK’s Pisa scores, for what it’s worth, show little change since they began in 2000. But this is surely besides the point. Even if we can’t measure it, raising happier, more capable, more fulfilled humans should surely be one of the central goals of any state.
Should we measure time instead of money?
The way we use our time is closely entwined with the economy — from balancing work versus leisure time to the time-saving innovations that raise our productivity. But we do not value all time equally, nor do we necessarily optimise how we spend our time.
A marvellous paper by Diane Coyle and Leonard Nakamura proposes that the way we use our time — and the benefit we get from those different uses — might be a better way of measuring our quality of life.
Being able to choose between earning more money and enjoying more leisure time is a good thing — it is not for me to say whether people get the balance right or wrong. But having a degree of choice over how much free time we have — whether that’s a shorter working week or a longer retirement — feels like an excellent marker of quality of life.
Unlike economic growth, time is finite. But we can give people more choice over how they use their time. The extent of that choice might be the ultimate marker of human progress, and the thing we should strive above all else to increase.