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Time spent with family during a typical workday, 1986 to 2005
by Martin Turcotte
Over the last two decades, the idea that a healthy balance between work and family is a legitimate as well as desirable goal took hold and became an important value for many workers. A survey conducted in 2003 found that, according to Canadian workers, the main indicator of a successful career was achieving a work-life balance, which ranked far ahead of salary, job challenges and level of responsibility.1
Government policy makers also increasingly recognize the importance of work-life balance. Thus, according to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, “work-life balance has emerged as a critical public policy issue in Canada”.2
For their part, some employers, in order to attract and retain good employees, offer their workers more latitude in choosing their hours of work, and the option of working from home or taking leave for family reasons.3 In some workplaces, the desire to spend more time with family is no longer looked on as a weakness. The many anecdotes of employees who turn down promotions or prestigious positions for fear of having less time to spend with family attest to this.4
Despite these workplace changes and the establishment of work-life balance policies, many workers feel they have less and less time to devote to their loved ones.5 Is this merely an impression, or are workers really spending less time than before with family members? And is the length of the workday, that is, the number of hours worked, really the main factor influencing the amount of time workers spend with family members?
This study looks at the time workers spend with family members during a typical workday. Using data from four different cycles of the General Social Survey (GSS) on Time Use, it documents the evolution of the average time spent with family during the workday between 1986 and 2005. In particular, it accounts for factors that can contribute to an understanding of these changes.
Among those factors, the length of the workday is certainly a determining one. In general, the more time spent in paid employment on a given day, the less time there is remaining to devote to family. However, other factors may considerably influence time spent with family members; for example, time spent on family meals, watching television, on social activities, and so on. This study pays particular attention to these various factors which, while they have not been examined as often in previous studies, have nonetheless contributed to the changes in time spent with family over the last 20 years.
Workers are spending less time with family than they did 20 years ago
In 1986, workers spent, on average, 4.2 hours, or 250 minutes, engaged in various activities with their spouse, their children or other family members. The nature of these activities varied, and could have included helping the children with their homework, watching television with their spouse and having dinner as a family. Nearly 20 years later, by 2005, this average number of hours had dropped to 3.4 hours, or 206 minutes, an average decline of about 45 minutes (Chart 1).
Seen from another angle, namely, workers who spend a lot of time with their family (six or more hours) and those who spend little time (one hour or less), the findings are the same. Workers are spending less and less time with family during the workday. In 1986, 23% of workers spent 6 hours or more with family members, while this was true of just 14% of workers in 2005. And the proportion of workers who spent one hour or less with their family increased, from 9% in 1986 to 14% in 2005.
A number of studies have shown that in contemporary urban societies, friends increasingly make up part of people’s social networks, sometimes at the expense of family members.6 This might lead one to think that today’s workers are “replacing” some of the time their predecessors spent with family members with time spent with friends. This, however, is not the case. In fact, the average time workers spent with their friends decreased by more than half between 1986 and 2005, from about 44 minutes on a typical workday to about 19 minutes.
If workers are not spending their time outside working hours with family members or friends, with whom are they spending it?
According to the data from four different cycles of the GSS on time use, the answer to this question is simple: workers are spending more time by themselves! In fact, in 1986, workers engaged in solitary activities on average 133 minutes, or 2.2 hours per day (excluding time spent alone during working hours). By 2005, this time had increased by just over 40 minutes to 174 minutes, or 2.9 hours.
These trends are consistent with those observed in a previous study about the time Canadians spend alone in an average day.7 That study, which looked at the entire population aged 15 and older, showed an increase in time spent alone on the order of 34% between 1986 and 1998 (from 4.4 hours to 5.9 hours).
Spending time alone is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people actually appreciate having time for themselves, whether for reflection, to listen to music they enjoy, or to spend time on their favourite hobby. Some authors even go so far as to extol solitude in books devoted entirely to the subject.8 In addition, researchers and philosophers of different stripes champion (or have done in the past) the idea that time spent alone, provided it is desired, can have substantial benefits in terms of creativity, spiritual quest, freedom of action and thought, and overall well-being.9 A number of Canadian workers would probably agree with some of these observations. Despite the fact that time spent alone had increased since 1986, about 33% of them reported in 2005 that they would like to spend more time alone. This being said, obviously the more time one spends alone, the less time one can spend with other family members or with friends.10
A number of studies on time spent with family from a work-life perspective look at the impact on family life of various methods of work organization, including the number of hours worked, whether or not flexible hours of work are possible, and organizational culture.11 They also look at the relationships between the characteristics of parents (their level of education, their gender, and so on), those of families (father and mother’s employment status, number and age of children, and so on) and time spent with the children or spouse. For example, a number of researchers have studied the link between the hours worked by mothers and fathers and the time they spend with their children.12 Others have assessed the influence of the parents’ level of education on the time they spend with their children, in various national contexts.13
This study also examines the links between time spent with family, on the one hand, and, on the other, hours worked, worker characteristics and family characteristics. But it also analyzes additional factors to which previous studies have devoted little or no attention, such as the nature, duration and context of the various activities in which workers participate in their personal life outside working hours. For example, it looks at the connection between time spent at family meals and the total time spent with family members — be it the spouse, the children or other members of the household or family.
Table A.1 presents statistics on the average time spent with family members, grouped according to these three broad categories of factors: time spent at work, the characteristics of workers and families; the duration of the activities in which workers engage; and the nature of those activities.
Table A.1 Average time spent by workers with their families during a typical workday in 1986 and 2005, by certain characteristics
As Table A.1 shows, the number of hours of paid work is among the factors most strongly correlated with time spent with family. Not surprisingly, as the workday increases, time spent with family decreases. In 2005, for example, people who had spent 11 hours or more of their day in paid employment had spent 1.8 hours on average with members of their family. In contrast, people who had worked between 8 and 9 hours had spent 3.7 hours with family members.
Looking at family characteristics, workers living with one child under age 5 spent the most time with family, while lone parents living with a youth or young adult spent the least amount of time participating in family activities. Age, area of residence, time spent at meals, personal care (including sleep), watching television, reading and so on are also factors associated with time spent with family. Other characteristics, however, such as level of education and gender, seem to be less strongly associated.
Table A.1 also shows that time spent with family members decreased between 1986 and 2005 for most subgroups of workers. For example, while women spent an average 248 minutes with their family members in 1986, this average was just 209 minutes in 2005. For men, the average time spent with family members decreased by 45 minutes, from 250 minutes in 1986 to 205 minutes in 2005. The decrease in time spent with family was observed for all regions, for all levels of education and for nearly all age groups.
How can all these results be separated out and the significance of all these associations determined? But most of all, why is it that workers with such dissimilar characteristics tend to spend less time with family members?
One probable explanation for the decrease in the average time that workers spend with their family members is that the characteristics of workers, and the time they devote to other activities such as work, changed significantly between 1986 and 2005. Specifically, it is possible that certain types of workers who tend to spend less time with their family members (such as those age 45 or older), made up a larger proportion of all workers in 2005. If so, this would lower the average time spent with family by workers taken as a whole.14
Looking at the statistics presented in Table A.2, this hypothesis seems plausible. For example, it can be seen that the proportion of workers age 45 or older, a subgroup that tends to spend slightly less time with family than others, increased from 30% in 1986 to 44% in 2005. In contrast, the proportion of workers between ages 30 and 34, one of the age groups that spends the highest average amount of time with family, decreased from 17% to 12% of workers.
Table A.3 also shows that on average, workers devoted more time to paid employment in 2005 than in 1986 (536 minutes versus 506 minutes during a typical workday). This is also a significant change, which suggests that a number of workers have increasingly less time available to spend with family.
While interesting and relevant, the data contained in Tables A.1, A.2 and A.3 give no indication as to which of these many factors had the greatest influence on the decrease in family time between 1986 and 2005. In an attempt to identify this, a statistical analysis was done to take into account both the various factors influencing the time spent with family and the various changes in worker profiles between 1986 and 2005.
Increase in hours worked during a typical workday is the main reason for the decrease in time spent with family
Table 1 shows that, compared to 1986, workers spent an average 39 minutes less with family members in 1998 and 43 minutes less in 2005 (Model 1). This first statistical model does not take into account any of the factors associated with family time. Models 2 and 3 illustrate how this difference decreases when more and more factors are considered simultaneously. In Model 4, the differences between years are no longer of any statistical significance. This last result supports the hypothesis that the changes in worker characteristics and the time workers devote to various activities explain the decrease in time spent with family between 1986 and 2005. Of these characteristics, which had the most influence?
Table 1a Predicted time spent with family, by survey year, age group, sex and region
It is not surprising that the amount of time spent at work is the factor that correlates most strongly with time spent with family: as work hours rise, family time falls. For example, holding all factors included in Model 4 constant, the estimated time spent with family was 52 minutes less for workers who devoted 9 to 10 hours to their paid employment versus those who devoted 7 to 8 hours.
The average time devoted to paid employment during the typical workday increased considerably between 1986 and 2005 and the proportion of workers who devoted many hours to their paid activities also increased (for example, while 17% of workers had devoted 10 hours or more to their work in 1986, 25% did so in 2005).
It should be noted that these results provide no information about time spent with family during workers’ leave days. Further analyses would need to be done to verify whether different trends are emerging for those days.15
While watching television is often perceived as an individual activity, it is nevertheless quite often done as a family or a couple. And it is an activity that accounts for much of workers’ free time. In 2005, after paid employment and personal care (including sleep), watching television (including movies, videos and DVDs) was the activity to which workers devoted the most time during the average workday (79 minutes).
The results of the statistical analysis show that as time spent watching television on a given day increased, so did the time spent with family. For example, compared to a worker who had watched no television, a worker who had spent one to two hours in front of a television set had also spent an average of 58 minutes more with family members (holding constant all other factors associated with family time, i.e., equivalent workday duration, equivalent time spent on personal care, identical family status and so on). While people do not necessarily interact directly with others when watching television, they are nevertheless likely to be in others’ company, which is less often the case when they are not watching television.
That being said, it is also possible that more and more workers are watching TV alone. The number of households with two or more television sets increased from about 28% in 1987 to 63% in 2005. In addition, the percentage of households with three or more sets has jumped in recent years, from 18% in 1997 to 27% in 2004. The fact that workers watched television alone, if only briefly during the day, completely changes the notion of a positive link between TV and time spent with family. In fact, workers who had watched television alone during a given day spent, on average, 113 minutes less with their family members than those who had not watched alone, holding constant all other factors considered in the analysis.
Workers’ television viewing habits are not at all insignificant, since they had a major impact on the decrease in time spent with family between 1986 and 2005. The fact that increasingly more workers had watched television alone at some point in the day (27% in 2006 versus just 17% in 1986) accounts for nearly one quarter (24%) of the decline in time spent with family. And the fact that on average, workers spent less time watching television (a drop of about 15 minutes between 1986 and 2005) accounted for about 9% of the decrease in the time they spent with family.
Mealtime, and especially suppertime, is the favourite time of day for family members to interact and talk about their day — and also sometimes argue! Between 1986 and 2005, two trends in workers’ habits regarding meals, snacks and breaks negatively affected time spent with family. First of all, the average time spent at meals outside work hours decreased, from 60 minutes in 1986 to 45 minutes in 2005. But above all, workers were far more likely to have at least one meal, snack or coffee alone (only 17% in 1986, versus 27% in 2005). After time spent at work and time spent watching television, it is changes in workers’ meal habits to which one should turn for a better understanding of the decrease in time spent with family. The fact that workers tend increasingly to eat alone accounted for 18% of the decline in the average time spent with family between 1986 and 2005. The fact that the average time devoted to meals decreased appreciably accounted for about 11% of the decline.
The correlation with time spent on personal care (including sleep) does not require much explanation. As with workday duration, the more time people spend washing, dressing or sleeping, the less time they have for activities with family members. What is most interesting is that time spent on personal care ranks fourth in importance, along with time spent on meals, among the factors that contributed to the decline in time spent with family. In other words, if the average time spent by workers on family activities declined between 1986 and 2005, this was owing in part to the fact that workers were spending more time sleeping, dressing and so on.
The last change to have a notable effect on the decrease in time spent with family between 1986 and 2005 is the declining prevalence and time spent by workers on social activities outside the home. In 1986, workers spent, on average, 23 minutes on social activities outside their home (going to a restaurant with one or more people, visiting people in their homes, and so on); this average dropped by more than half, to just 11 minutes in 2005. Obviously, taking part in social activities outside the home does not automatically mean spending more time with family members — people may, for example, spend this time socializing with friends or acquaintances. However, for people living in families, as was the case for the workers in this study, some of these outings included the spouse or children. Social activities are therefore an ideal opportunity to spend time as a family. The fact that the average time devoted to social activities outside the home decreased between 1986 and 2005 accounted for 7% of the decline in time spent with family.
Among the other factors associated with the average time spent with family, but that contributed less to the decrease observed between 1986 and 2005, we might first mention family structure. As Model 4 shows, holding all other factors constant, the estimated time spent with family by workers with a child under age 5 is significantly greater than that spent by workers living with a spouse but no children. Parents living without a spouse, but with a young child (i.e., lone-parent workers), spent the most time with one or more family members -- about one hour more than workers living with a spouse only. In contrast, workers living with only a youth or young adult spent the least estimated time with family of all categories. There is little surprise in this, since they have no spouse with whom to share their activities outside work, and their children probably have their own activities that they want to pursue alone or with friends.
These results for workers as a whole obscure the fact that women living with a partner are more affected than men, in terms of time spent with family, by the presence of young children in the household. In fact, when children, especially young children, are present, women spend significantly more time with family than men do. Further analysis showed that female workers living with a spouse and a child under 5 spent an average 47 minutes more with the members of their family than did men with similar family structure (holding the other factors constant). The same analysis showed that women living with a spouse and at least one child between age 5 and 12 (but no preschoolers) spent an average 23 minutes more with family than did men with an identical family structure.
A recent study shows that men and women have increasingly been sharing unpaid housework equally, including caring for children.16 However, the same study shows that women have continued to devote appreciably more time than men to caring for the children by, for example, reading to them, taking them to the park, helping them with homework or driving them to various activities. These enduring distinctions probably explain to a large extent why women living with a partner and a child spend more time than men with one or more family members on a typical workday.
There was, however, no statistically significant difference between male and female lone-parent workers in terms of time spent with their family members. But it should be said that the majority of these lone-parent workers are women (about three-quarters in this study).
Time spent on trips, whether by car or on public transit, also correlates to a slight reduction in time spent with family. However, because some of this travel involves taking children to and from activities, the statistical correlation is relatively weak compared to other factors. Canadian workers spent, on average, more time travelling to and from work in 2005 than in 1992.17 The analysis shows that this is not, however, one of the main contributors to the decrease in time spent with family.
The same is true of reading activities. Reading is generally a solitary activity, but can also be done in the presence of a child or spouse, when such are present in the household. Nevertheless, workers who spent more time in their day reading also spent a little less time with their spouse or children.
Finally, the findings showed that, when all other factors are held constant, gender, age, level of schooling and area of residence are not associated with a statistically significant decrease or increase in time spent with family. This is because the other factors mentioned earlier, such as length of the workday, family structure or television viewing, whether alone or not, had much more of an influence on time spent with family. Thus, for a workday of equivalent duration, for example, whether a worker was older or younger had no bearing on the likelihood of their spending more or less time with family.
Since 1986, the average time workers spent in activities with members of their family on a typical workday has declined appreciably, from about 4 hours and 10 minutes per day in 1986 to about 3 hours and 25 minutes in 2005. This decline has been observed in the majority of subgroups of the worker population, including men and women, workers living with a spouse only and those living with young children, workers with a college degree and those who have not completed high school. In short, the decrease in the time spent with family members was widespread.
This study identified a number of factors associated with the decrease in time spent with family between 1986 and 2005. The fact that the average time devoted to paid employment during the typical workday has increased appreciably since 1986 is the main factor that explains why people are spending less time with family. The other factors that had an impact on time spent with family over this period are, in order of relative importance: the fact that workers tend increasingly to watch television alone, eat alone, and spend less time on meals, television and social activities outside the home.
Other factors were correlated to time spent with family. The presence of a child in the family, especially a young child, was associated with a considerable increase in the number of minutes spent with family members during the typical workday. This was especially true of female workers in this type of household. Also, time spent travelling by car and reading took away from time spent with family.
Martin Turcotte is a social sciences researcher with Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division, Statistics Canada.
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