A New Dimension: Time Inequality

The perception of time is an interesting thing. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein sums it up nicely. “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour.” Luckily, most of us will never sit on a red-hot cinder (and I’m not sure why Einstein did…). But, most of us will work. And I don’t know about you, but at some of my old jobs I think I’d rather take the hot cinder. (I once mowed the rough at a golf course eight hours a day. The rough is, like, the most boring part of the course.)

Whether your job is the equivalent of a keister cinder or something you truly enjoy, odds are you’d still rather just relax. Which gets me to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: “time inequality.” What’s time inequality? It’s the idea that people who are already advantaged increasingly get to spend more of their time at leisure. Why do I think this might be happening? I’ll give you one guess.

COVID-19 and Time Inequality

COVID-19 has done a lot of really bad things. It killed so many U.S. citizens, that it caused declines in life expectancy. It damaged our economy in a way that caused rapid and unequal unemployment. COVID-19 even hit the industry in which I work, causing declines in college enrollment. To put it in scientific terms, COVID sucks.

However, one thing COVID changed has the potential to not completely suck…remote work. It seems most people like remote work. It’s not hard to see why. Remote work offers people flexibility to work when they want. And, it gets rid of those annoying commutes. Plus, it eliminates of some of the optics people hate, like face-time.

Here’s the thing. Like many aspects of the U.S. economy, there is inequality in who has been able to work remotely during the pandemic. The figure below shows that, as of June 2021, those with a bachelor’s degree are five times more likely to work remotely than those without a degree. This inequality has existed throughout the pandemic.

Figure 1. Share of Workers who Worked Remotely Due to COVID-19 in Prior 4 Weeks, by Education

Source: Author’s analysis from IPUMS CPS, University of Minnesota.

So, more educated people — you know, the ones who have captured most of the wage growth over the last 40 years — spend more time doing remote work. What does this have to do with time inequality?

Remote Work…and Relaxation on the Rise

Recently, The American Time Use Survey (that’s the ATUS for you cool kids) released new data. The ATUS is a nationally representative time diary that has been collected since 2003. Basically, people record what they did in a given day, and the data is coded up for analysis. And, as much as COVID sucks, one thing that comes out of these data is that it gave people more time to relax. According to the ATUS, time spent in leisure and sports increased 32 minutes a day between 2019 and 2020.

When I saw these data, I wondered whether this increase only happened for groups that have been able to work remotely. After all, as I mentioned above, remote work gets rid of commute time. Plus, once work is done, there is no reason to sit there till 5 o’clock and act like you are still working (note to old bosses: I have never done this!). Was remote work fueling an increase in time inequality?

To find out, I went to the ATUS data myself, using the enormously useful University of Minnesota IPUMS website. First, I divided the workers in the ATUS into two groups — those with and without a bachelors degree. I also identified workers with and without kids, since the ability to work remotely was likely especially important for those with kids. I then tabulated how much time they spent on work-related activities (including commuting) and on leisure. The findings suggest that, yes, time inequality is on the rise.

Figure 2. Change in Minutes Per Day in Work and Leisure from 2019-2020, for All Workers and Working Parents

Source: Author’s analysis from IPUMS ATUS, University of Minnesota.

Three takeaways emerge from the figure. First, those with bachelor’s degrees saw bigger declines in time spent working (see red bars). Second, those with bachelor’s degrees saw bigger increases in time spent at leisure (see grey bars). Third, this inequality is bigger for parents, presumably the group that benefits most from being able to work remotely and spend time with their kids (see right side of the chart).

The Future

What’s next in this story remains unclear. The Society of Human Resource Managers reports that many firms will continue using remote work whenever the pandemic ends. If this happens, it is likely to be more educated workers that benefit from the reduced commute times and a lower need for busy work (again…I would never fake work). Time inequality could be here to stay.

And, this inequality may show up in other ways too. The ATUS data also show rising inequality in the time parents are spending around their children. Between 2019 and 2020, working parents with a bachelor’s degrees increased time spent on “secondary” childcare by 57 minutes a day. “Secondary” childcare is basically the time a parent spends with a child in their care, but perhaps doing something else (like working, or at leisure). For those without a bachelor’s degree, this measure increased by just 7 minutes, or just 12 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. So, the kids of some parents are likely to see more parental attention, which could lead to better opportunities down the road.

As we eventually (hopefully!) go forward into post-pandemic life, time inequality is something I will be keeping an eye on. After all, money isn’t everything. Time matters too. And some people may end up enjoying it more than others.

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