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Canada's General Social Survey on Time Use: Challenges and Potential

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Canada's General Social Survey on Time Use: Challenges and Potential

by Catherine Allan, Heather Dryburgh and Dave Horlor

1. Introduction

The General Social Survey (GSS) is an annual survey that monitors changes and emerging trends in Canadian Society. The survey is cyclical, with repeated content approximately every five years. This survey structure enables us to focus on a number of different topics, including time use, families, victimization and retirement. Repeated cycles allow us to monitor trends in Canadian society over time, one of the main objectives of the GSS. In addition to monitoring trends we also are mandated to respond to new and emerging trends in Canadian society. For this reason, we looked at Access to and Use of Information Communication Technologies in 2000, and Social Engagement in 2003. Whether for monitoring trends or for responding to new issues, we aim to provide information to policy departments and researchers to enable them to develop evidence-based policy.

For the fourth time in Canada, the GSS has collected national level time use data. Time use data were also collected as part of the GSS in Canada in 1986, 1992 and 1998 (see Table 1). In addition to the time use diary, the 2005 questionnaire covers perceptions of the time crunch, social networks, transportation, and cultural and sports activities, all of which will be described more fully later in the paper.

Table 1. General social survey cycle topics. A new browser window will open.

Table 1  General Social Survey cycle topics

The GSS is funded through a Canadian government initiative aimed to fill data gaps for policy research1. In this paper we present the policy interests behind the survey and discuss the impact of those interests on the content decisions that GSS has made for the 2005 time use cycle. Following a brief review of some findings from earlier cycles of time use data we discuss the lessons learned and best practices in the development, collection and processing of these data in Canada. Finally, we compare the methods and content of the 2005 Canadian time use survey with the US survey.

1.1 Previous findings from GSS time use data

Some interesting findings have come out of previous time use cycles. The data have been widely used by researchers to look at questions of time crunch, family dynamics, stress, sports and leisure and work arrangements. Some highlights from research published in our Statistics Canada publication Canadian Social Trends illustrates the range of issues that can be addressed through a time use survey.

  • The 1998 time use data showed that although mothers spend more time with their young children, the gap in time spent by mothers and fathers with their children narrows as the child grows older. By the time children are aged 13-14 years, fathers spend as much time, on average, with their children as mothers. As one might expect, the total minutes spent together decreases as children move into adolescence. (Silver, 2000)
  • Another study found that women who are satisfied with their quality of life average less time on household work. This was true when quality of life was measured by work-family balance, time crunch and life satisfaction measures (Frederick & Fast, 2001). This study also found that enjoying one's work reduces stresses on time and on work-family balance.
  • Women tend to sleep longer than men and are less likely to cut back on their sleep when pressed for time (Williams, 2001). Although most employed Canadians of working age spend the largest part of their day doing paid work, high income workers spend on average 15% more time on their paid job than those with low income. Conversely, this study showed that those from low income households spend more time on such unpaid chores as housework and home maintenance than high income individuals (Williams, 2002).
  • Looking at transportation, in 1998 the time use survey told us that on a typical weekday, 75% of the adult population went somewhere by car, up 5 percentage points from 1986. At that time, public transit use had declined - a potentially important issue for 2005 as gas prices increase and the environmental effects of gas emissions are becoming more evident (Clark, 2000).

The 2005 GSS presents further possibilities for research and analysis. The pilot survey for this most recent cycle took place in 2004 and collection of the main survey was conducted from January to December, 2005, with a much larger target sample size of approximately 20,000 (vs. 11,000 in 1998). The next sections discuss the process of consultation and development of the 2005 survey, outlining the new content as well as changes to the collection processes that have had an impact on the latest time use data for Canada.


1. Policy Research Data Group, GAPS II.

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