John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Spoiler alert: It's mostly just watching TV.
Just how do Americans while away the hours?
For senior citizens, the average day is one big opportunity for chilling out: People age 75 and over spend nearly 8 hours engaged in some form of leisure activity. That's almost twice the amount enjoyed by so-called Millennials. But hey, at their age, the oldest among us have earned the right to plant.
Women with young kids spend about one hour providing physical care like feeding and bathing; their male counterparts budget an average of 26 minutes for those duties. On weekends, 34 percent of employed Americans are actually working at their jobs. And proving that the glowing rectangular screen is the country's great unifier, watching TV is by far the most popular form of leisure, with the typical adult spending 2.8 hours a day flipping through the channels.
Considering that great inactivity, perhaps this article should've run with a more honest photo:
This glimpse into the schedules of everyday Americans comes from a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of nearly 12,000 people. The full survey, with its reams of data, can be a little tough to parse all together, but thankfully data-visualizer Chris Walker has condensed much of it into easily digestible graphs. These visual representations of how people really use their hours "reflect all kinds of interesting things, most importantly differences in values and traditions," Walker explains via email from his temporary base in Mumbai. He adds:
The most interesting differences come from comparing the oldest and youngest cohorts, and key contrasts show up in activities like practicing religion, volunteering, reading for pleasure, and listening to the radio. I'm also fascinated by how much we change over the course of our lives. If you are what you do, then you take on many different identities over the course of your life. On the other hand I wanted to show similarities in daily rhythms, where the fundamental continuities are. It's interesting how similar our days look on some dimensions, like watching TV, eating, and socializing.
Here are selections from Walker's project; find the full interactive version on his website. First, here's evidence that parents in their late 20s and early 30s spend much more time than other groups tending to children; the bulk of the care happens in the evening. "This age group is the most likely to have very young children in their households," writes Walker:
This graph suggests that after the kids grow up, parents replace them with pets:
Older Americans are very good at volunteering in their communities (and because they're often retired, have the time to do it during the busy early hours):
Seniors are also very fond of picking up a book and taking it to bed. Kids these days show much less indication of reading for pleasure, though:
When they're not reading, the younger generation is working out and playing sports:
They're also more apt to be on their computers, particularly at night, surfing the 'net and penning emails. (Wasting bad guys on "Call of Duty" and other video-game activity is not included here):
See if you can guess the identity of this mystery activity, which exhibits a similar pattern in all categories of age:
Yep, it's watching television and movies. Writes Walker: "We are still a nation of TV watchers."