Sunday, January 2, 2011

Are Recessions Just Collective Laziness?

This is a patently offensive idea.

Until you look at time use data … and then it starts to look like a more reasonable position.

I’m not claiming that you should view this as an explanation for recessions, or even a major component of them.

Having said that, you can’t dismiss the possibility once you look at the data. Consider this infographic from The Wall Street Journal (click for a full-size version):

Between 2007 and 2009, basically from before the recession to around the end of it, time working decreased by 17 minutes per day on average. All of that and more is made up for by the 12 minute increase in average TV watching and the 6 minute increase in sleep.

Look at the work-like activities: caring for others, shopping, and household activities – collectively they’re down a bit. Talking on the phone and e-mailing is up. Other uncategorized activities (mostly web-surfing these days) is also up.

Also, education is up a little bit in gross terms. In fact, education is up by about the same percentage (7.5) that work is down. But work was and is a much bigger component (7 to 8 times larger). This suggests that the fraction of people who might actually try and better themselves through education is pretty small – maybe 15% or so of the unemployed.

Leisure of course is down by quite a bit too. This makes sense if leisure includes things that are costly, and TV does not.

This pattern isn’t really desirable. It would be a lot easier to claim that recessions aren’t collective laziness if the 17 minute drop in average working hours led to increases in caring for others (because now someone has more time), household activities (because you’re spending more time at home you should do more upkeep), charitable activities outside the home or education.

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