Thanks to alert readers who sent me a recent New York Times article by Cristobal Young called “You don’t need more free time.” The thesis, based on time diaries, is that leisure time is a network good. It is most enjoyed when it is experienced at the same time as other people. Young implied that this had negative implications for flexible schedules. While it is an intriguing idea (and cheers to using actual time diaries for studying time) I think the thesis ultimately has some holes in it.
The study that sparked the article, published in the journal Sociological Science, looked at how people felt about their time. We all get happier on weekends, which might make sense for working sorts, but even people who were unemployed felt happier on Saturdays and Sundays. The reason, Young says, is that we are happier when sharing our leisure time with friends and family. So if working people are waiting for the weekend, so are unemployed people, because that is when they see other people. “The weekend derives much of its importance from the fact that so many people are off work together.”
I agree that this is one reason I suspect people sometimes do not like my suggestion to think in terms of 168 hours, not 24. Working on weekends can open up more time during the week, but for some people that is a no-go.
But not for everyone, and here Young seems to operate in a different world than many readers of my blog. I will quote: “This conclusion points to a key feature of the work-life problem: You cannot get more weekend simply by taking an extra day off work yourself. If we were to take more time off as individuals, we would be likely to spend that time, as the jobless do, waiting for other people to finish work. We are stuck at work, in a sense, by the work schedules of our family and friends.”
Given how many of my busy parent readers tell me they crave time for themselves — and really enjoy taking the occasional Tuesday off, for instance, to have time that is not with kids or at work — this does not follow. If your weekends involve pure leisure, that is one thing. If they involve hours of childcare, you can totally get more “weekend” time by taking an extra day off work.
Then this conclusion is even worse: “Over the past few years, many workplaces have looked for ways to create more flexibility in individual work schedules. There is no question that doing so has many benefits. But my research suggests that a disadvantage of these efforts is that they may lead us even further from a weekend-like system of coordinated social time. They threaten, ultimately, to exacerbate the decline in civic engagement and social contact known as the “bowling alone” problem. The solution might be found in a form of constraint: more standardization of the time for work and the time for life.”
Here is the issue with this: the reason many parents want work flexibility is so they can leave earlier during the week, and spend time with young children who go to bed early. This makes it possible for them to have connected time with their family, or with their communities (running sports practices, scouts, church groups, etc.), while making up work at night and on the weekend. The point of the “split shift” is to trade off work time for TV time instead of work time for family time. Watching TV alone is even more lonely than bowling alone.
Standardizing the time for work and the time for life forces many parents, generally mothers, into a bind. In order to do personal things that must happen during the workday, they have to work less. This means they cannot advance their careers. If the time can be made up, they can. I often work at night or on weekends, and I know that many other people who are mindful about how they spend their time do too. This does not cut off time for civic engagement, it just makes life workable for working parents.
A version of this post appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website where she writes about strategically managing time between her work and family.