why our spare time matters more than ever


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For so many years, I picked up and dropped off. For decades, I’ve been a volunteer. All my life, I’ve cared for someone in one capacity of another.

None of that counts.

Bureau of Statistics may cut more surveys

The all-seeing eye of the ABS may have its field of view reduced further and Labor isn’t happy. Courtesy ABC News 24.

Women’s work is invisible and nothing we can do as individuals will make that any different. We do the bulk of the housework, the childcare, the shopping, the volunteering, the caring of all kinds. None of it counts and that’s partly because it’s not counted.

Counting matters. Australia used to conduct a world-leading Time Use study but 2006 was the last time the ABS did that work. Those results gave deep insight into how Australia was changing and in 2008, when the results became public, it became clear we were working longer hours, sleeping less, doing less physical activity. We spent less time playing.

Here’s what this important study surveyed: domestic activities, childcare, purchasing, voluntary work, care. It’s how our world works but here in Australia, we would never know. And it’s here where our private productivity exists, thrives. By international standards, we live glorious lives but the secret of those lives is hidden. This erasure affects women most – you only had to look at the last Census to see who did the bulk of the chores – but it also affects men. It makes the unpaid part of our lives mysterious and it extends that key myth of capitalism – that only paid productivity matters.

The decision, time and time again, by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to ‘postpone’ a new Time Use study makes that private productivity invisible – as if all that matters is what we get paid for.

Lyn Craig is at her wit’s end. The former University of NSW academic now University of Melbourne’s new professor of sociology and social policy is so frustrated with the ABS’ decision not to fund the survey, she’s threatening to do it herself. Which will delight the ABS. When I asked this week if it would ever consider reinstating the survey, this was the response: “[The ABS] would welcome the opportunity to conduct another time use survey if resources were available. With strong, ongoing interest in time use data, the ABS has been consistently considering ways of including the collection of time use data in their survey program, and have been seeking partnerships around funding potential development options.”

In other words, it knows just how important this data is – but it has no money to fund the work. This is how funding cuts result in inefficiency dividends. Perhaps Craig can find the money to run a survey through the University of Melbourne and we can all find out how time slips through our fingers.

The thing we do know, through the time use data from 2006, is that averaged across all the days of the week, we adults, that is everyone over 15, only work three paid hours a day. Three hours a day. What are we doing with the rest of our time? Life turns out to be about much more than paid work. We spend those other 21 hours a day contributing to the way Australia works – but all that time spent counts for naught.

As John Goss, an adjunct Associate Professor in health economics at the Health Research Institute, University of Canberra, puts it: “Our GDP and our social and political commentary focuses on the three hours per day we spend, on average, at paid work.”

We are missing that mechanics of living, of existence. Goss analysed the last Time Use data and found we spend over five hours a day on unpaid activity but the real detail is seen as insignificant.

“The five hours 20 minutes per day we spend on unpaid activity is seen as less important … but our world would collapse without the 2-1/4 hours per day spent on housework, the 40 minutes per day on child care, the 20 minutes per day on voluntary work and care and the 30 minutes per day on education.”

As economist Hazel Henderson put it 30 years ago, this is one of the layers of the economy cake, the love economy, which supports the paid productivity on which everyone focuses. But it’s the layer we can’t do without. We can’t go to work and abandon our children. We can’t have happy connected lives without caring.

Next week, Craig is heading off to the International Association of Time Use Research conference in Spain to hear more than 100 analyses of how people all over the world spend their time. There is only one presentation from an Australian academic – and that’s Craig and colleagues’ analysis on time pressures on mothers and fathers. It’s the rest of the world examining the links between sleep time and obesity or the division of housework and caring or how mobile devices have changed our working patterns.

And like numbers, these things matter. As Craig says: “The expectations on young women and people in general to manage everything, it is all too much, it threatens mental health and it should be made visible.”

Jenna Price is a Fairfax Media columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.

Twitter: @jennaprice

Facebook: facebook.com/jennapricejournalist

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