Book of January- Discretionary time: A new measure of freedom

Goodin, R. E., Rice, J. M., Parpo, A., & Eriksson, L. (2008). Discretionary time: A new measure of freedom

Working on a publication, nowadays I read a lot about the problem of valuing unpaid household labor, and how it can become more visible on the level of the individual or the society. The standard economic theory made almost no mention of the family, and ‘home production’ of women traditionally belonged to the non-economic part of the world for many decades. Nowadays, economists in the OECD and in various national statistical offices agree, that this productive contribution should be included somehow in the National Accounts statistics. This is the point of departure of the book ‘Discretionary time: A new measure of freedom’, which proposes ‘measuring rod of time’ as an alternative metric, and a new concept, ‘discretionary time’ to capture a fundamental aspect of welfare.

The book argues that time is inherently egalitarian (a day consists of 24 hours for everyone, and one hour is the same amount everywhere), thus, it can serve as the basis of social comparisons. Time is a scarce resource and a universal good, just like money. We need time to do anything (e.g. to read a book or to do a workout) or to become anything (e.g. a teacher or a parent). Even poverty can be expressed in time, and the authors argue, that “looking at poverty in a joint time-and-money framework reveals important differences in how different socio-economic regimes impact on people’s welfare”. (p.9.)

Precision in measurement

Assessing one’s time use is not as easy, as it might seem at first sight. In a questionnaire, a researcher might ask ‘how much time you spend on this activity on an average day’, or ‘how often did you do this activity last week’. This is one way of measurement, however far not the most precise one. Subjective bias is unavoidable if we ask the respondent to give an estimate.  The authors of this book have a better idea referring to the work of a famous Hungarian sociologist, Sándor Szalai, and his international research team, who laid the methodological foundations of time balance research in 1965. He initiated the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS) which the authors also use in combination with the Luxembourg Income Study.

MTUS uses time-use surveys, thus diary-based exercises involving thousands of people, often with everyone in the household above 15 years. Their task is to record what they were doing in a diary, indicating the beginning and ending points of each activity within 5 minutes. In case of multitasking, respondents are asked to specify what their major activity was and what else they were doing. Normally such an exercise lasts at least two days, and researchers pay attention to represent all weekdays in their sample.  Respondents also provide background information on their demographics, like age, sex, employment, education, income and so on.

Out of the recorded activities, some belong to necessities, like the economic necessity of earning enough income, the social necessity of shopping or cooking or biological necessities, like eating or sleeping. The authors use ‘discretionary time’ as the amount of time you left over, once you have done what strictly necessary is. This is the time over which you have autonomous control. This is different from ‘spare time’ commonly used by time-use researchers as the measure of ‘free time’. They argue, that most people spend more time with certain activities than that would be strictly necessary. For example, a lot of people spend more time on paid work than they would need to reach the poverty line. Spare time is thus typically much less than discretionary time, while discretionary time can be negative too. The authors argue, that the gap between the two numbers constitutes the ‘time-pressure illusion’.

For example, even if a woman is no longer expected to be obedient to her husband nowadays, she can have a huge housework burden, a lot of time necessary to spend on household tasks, that she cannot call ‘her own’. There is a minimal standard for taking care of young children, but there are also pressures of a less formal sort. However as a member of a dual-earner couple, probably her ‘necessary time in paid labor’ is low, lower than the time she actually spends doing it. This results in the time-pressure illusion, which is more related to our choices than to real constraints.

This book provides an international comparison of the developed countries, searching for differences and common patterns in ‘time pressure illusion’ and time use.

Stories the data tell us

Without getting into the details of the welfare regime categorization of the book and other methodological considerations, let me just give you a peek into some findings of the book.

Interestingly, the authors concluded, that despite all the dramatic improvements in household technology, the amount of time we spend on household tasks does not decrease prominently. Too bad! We have washing machine, dishwasher, even robot vacuum cleaner, and we still spend significant time with housework.

Another finding is, that the time pressure on women is increasing as they move into the paid-labor market, once more, the time pressure becomes extreme as they try to maintain their dual role. The book also proves, that having children costs parents around 10 hours a week, no matter how they organize their household. It is also a surprising result, that the ‘Conventional Dual-earner’ household rule is the one that actually maximizes average discretionary time for the household as a whole. Don’t forget, that this is not about ‘spare time’, left over once you have done all the ‘paid labor’, ‘unpaid household labor’, ‘time in personal care’, nor ‘leisure time’, that is a section of spare time spent on gratifying activates. This is the time left over once you have done what strictly necessary is.

The research also found that women would actually have more discretionary time than men in only one of the discussed alternative household rules; the ‘Male-Breadwinner rule’. In one other case, the ‘Equal Temporal Contribution’ rule, they would have equal amounts of discretionary time as men. All other alternative household rules (e.g. equal monetary contribution, or any divorce rule) would leave women with less discretionary time. The Equal Temporal Contribution rule makes women better off than the Conventional Dual-earner rule, but only by about an hour a week. This is a big shock, isn’t it! Dual-earner rule is not only the best way to maximize average household discretionary time but also comes tolerably close to maximizing the amount of discretionary time of the woman as well as the man in the household. The research also proves that the time-costs of parents divorcing are huge, and twice those of childless couples divorcing.


Many results of this research have been quite unexpected for me. Probably, because I also tend to think in terms of ‘spare time’ instead of ‘discretionary time’, when it is about my own times use.  Although the personal situations can have great variances (just think of the number and the age of the children), some patterns seem clear.  Interestingly it generally does not matter much what country you live in, so far as the temporal consequences of altering household forms are concerned. This means, that the double burden for women is general. What makes the biggest difference to people’s discretionary time is divorce. Usually, we don’t think too much about divorce from the aspect of time use or autonomous control over our life. Once more, when it is about governmental family support programs, divorced people may be disadvantaged. They are often excluded from targeted and guaranteed state benefits, while in many ways life is more expensive for them. This research shows, that in terms of discretionary time, definitely.

The book raises some inconvenient questions like, why people don’t work less at home if we have more time left from washing or dishwashing. Does it mean, that our conception about what we count as necessary household work changed over time? Probably.  

Another disturbing question is, why some people work harder as they get richer, rather than taking advantage of some of their wealth to buy themselves a more leisurely life. (The authors’ hypothesis is, that they behave like drug addicts who develop a tolerance: consumers need more and more to maintain their satisfaction.)

All in all, applying the conception of discretionary time provides a fresh perspective on people’s choices. On one hand, it goes against the idea of neoclassical economics’ individual utility maximization since the authors don’t assume, that all time is available for autonomous activities. But on the other hand, they also admit, that our necessities limit us up to a certain threshold, and anything beyond it is a matter of choice. What I missed from the book, that these threshold levels (what they count as ‘strictly necessary’) remained unclear, just like the division of time within each household rule.

I recommend however the entire book to anyone, who is interested in time-use surveys, or in time as the ‘currency of egalitarian justice’.

Finally, let me recommend a movie too for the weekend on the same topic: In Time is a sci-fi with Justin Timberlake, which depicts a dystopia, where people stop aging at 25, but each person has a clock on their arm that counts down how long they have to live. In this imagined society, time becomes money, a universal currency that can make some people time-billionaire others live from one day to the other. The poor are constantly rushing and running to survive, while the wealthy can spend decades on luxury cars.