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Numlock Sunday: Ben Casselman on what exactly we do with all our time

Numlock Sunday: Ben Casselman on what exactly we do with all our time


Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Ben Casselman of the New York Times who wrote “The Pandemic Changed How We Spent Our Time” and “More phone calls, less shopping: how the pandemic changed American lives, down to the minute” with Ella Koeze. Here's what I wrote about it:

The American Time Use Survey for 2020 dropped, and needless to say it turns out people may have altered their behavior somewhat. Parents with kids in school spent an additional 1.6 hours per day providing secondary child care, while layoffs meant the average time spent working was down 17 minutes per day. The biggest winners of time were telephone calls (up 61.5 percent), lawn and garden care (30.8 percent), and relaxing and leisure (up 17.6 percent); the biggest losers were travel related to work (down 33.1 percent), shopping (21.8 percent), and socializing and communicating (16.1 percent). Somewhat distressingly, the average amount of time spent grooming fell 10.7 percent, from 41 minutes to 36 minutes. The survey didn’t break out the specific amount of time Americans spent saying, “You’re muted, Kevin, your mic is off,” but Numlock’s own preliminary estimates are forecasting a 200 percent increase.

Ben’s a favorite guest on the Sunday editions. We were colleagues at FiveThirtyEight and he’s one of the smartest people covering business and economics out there. This week, we talked all about his coverage of the latest data from the American Time Use Survey, a wild annual data collection carried out by the Department of Labor that shows how Americans spend their days. This latest edition includes the pandemic year’s data, so it’s an intriguing look at how people spent their time in 2020.

Ben can be found at The New York Times and on Twitter at @BenCasselman

This interview has been condensed and edited.

You wrote a bunch of really cool stories dissecting the latest from a very interesting American Time Use Survey. Can you tell us a little bit about what this survey is and what makes this year's particularly interesting?

The time use survey is this crazy thing, it's kind of a goldmine for us data nerds. It's done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics every year. And they literally ask people, thousands of people to track one day of their daily life in extreme detail. Like, I woke up at this time, and I brush my teeth and wash my hair from 7:15 to 7:18, and then I eat breakfast until 7:23, or whatever. It's categorized in all sorts of different ways. It's a nationally representative survey, so you can break it down by sex, and race, and age, and all of these things. Normally we use it to understand the long, slow shifts in the economy, and in society, and in American life, right?

We're spending more time on our screens than we used to, commutes have gotten longer, all of these sorts of things that we track over years and decades. And then of course, as with so many things, this year was an unusual one. The Time Use Survey actually stopped collecting data for a couple of months in the heart of the pandemic. You can kind of imagine why they maybe weren't so focused on that. But starting in May, they picked it back up again, and so we get this amazing picture of how life looked in the pandemic and the longer-running months of the pandemic and how that compares to normal. It's this amazing breakdown of all of the ways in which the pandemic disrupted our lives.

Yeah. You had two really good stories with your colleague and my former colleague Ella Koeze basically going into how different events and hobbies and things may have surged or whatnot. You wrote among some of the biggest increases were telephone calls, lawn and garden care, relaxing and leisure. What else kind of took a hit and what else really surged in the pandemic year?

Look, some of the things are pretty obvious, right? We spent a lot less time commuting last year. We spent a lot more time taking care of kids last year, although that one's a little complicated and maybe we can talk more about it.

I want to get into that in a little bit, yeah.

We spent a lot of time on Zoom calls, and telephone calls, and all of those kinds of communication. We spent a lot less time socializing, et cetera. There are some that are maybe a little bit less obvious. We spent less time working, but that's because a lot fewer people were working. Most of these numbers are just sort of total population wide averages, so if fewer people are working, that's less time on average. But actually among the people who worked, they worked about the same amount last year as they worked in 2019.

And then there's sort of like smaller ones: we actually spent a little more time sleeping last year, which is interesting. We spent more time cooking. More time, as you mentioned, on lawn care, taking care of the house, taking care of ourselves, more time exercising. Less time grooming, no big surprise there, if you've noticed anybody's hair getting long on the Zoom calls. In some ways, it's those little things I think that are actually the more telling.

Staying on work a little bit, I forget if this was in the first or the second story, but you wrote about when people were working, more were still going into work than I think a lot of folks, who have either a white collar job or transitioned to Zoom, may have gave credit.

I mean, I think that this is something. There were a lot of ways in which this data and people's response to the data really kind of reveals the bubbles that we all live in. Most people who were working were still working in person last year. Now, remember, this is data from sort of mid-May through the end of the year. It may have looked a little bit different in that late March, April, early May period, when the lockdowns were at their most intense. But a lot of people were still going into work every day last year. You can really see that when you look at the breakdowns by education for example, or by race, or by industry, sort of how unequal this fundamentally was.

If you had a graduate degree, you probably spent most of your time last year working from home. First of all, you were more likely to keep your job, right? Because you were more likely to work in an industry where you were able to keep working and then you were probably able to do it from home. If you look at the chart for people with a high school diploma or less, there's like very little increase in at-home work. Basically you either lost your job or you were going in person. There aren't a lot of jobs that require only a high school diploma where you have the luxury of being able to work from home.

It is just like a really striking series of charts. Office versus home is really just unaffected for high school or less. And then among "some college", it's a little bit effected. Bachelor degree kind of went from being a little bit skewed to about half and half hours at home versus hours in a workplace. But grad degree it's a cross.

Yeah. I mean, it just, it goes straight from people spend more time working in the office to people spending less time there. It's about a three hour swing. Again, these are averages. So in many cases, that's people going full-time into working from home. But yeah, it's a three hour swing on average of people working more at home versus in the office.

You had really interesting findings around motherhood last year. It seemed like parenting absolutely shifted in some significant ways, but the way the asymmetries worked out really kind of seemed to be a discussion about either unmarried mothers or never-married mothers versus mothers in general, about how parents cared for their kids. What did you find?

Childcare was one of the ones we sort of knew at the outset was just bound to be a really interesting question. Obviously anybody who had kids in the past year knows what an insane year this was for parents. Pretty much anybody who didn't have kids, I think, was aware as well, as they saw kids popping onto Zoom calls, and seeing parents suddenly disappear from the screen as they went to pursue some unseen crash off screen. The American Time Use Survey mostly tracks what would be called your primary activity, what you're mostly doing. Right now, my prime activity is recording a podcast. Even if I might occasionally be looking down at my phone or whatever in the middle of it, which I would never do to you, Walter. But, in theory, if one were to look at their phone…

But they do track childcare slightly differently. If you think about childcare, right, there's all of this time where it is your primary activity, you're giving the kids a bath, you're helping kids with homework, whatever it might be. But then there's a ton of other time where you're responsible for the kids while doing something else. You're cooking dinner, but you're also keeping an eye on the kids. You're cleaning the house, but you're also keeping an eye on the kids. And last year, it is what’s referred to as secondary childcare that saw this crazy explosion. And of course it saw a particular explosion in terms of the amount of time that people spent working while keeping an eye on the kids. Just a dramatic increase there.

As you said, right, there was a really big difference here between men and women. And they're all sorts of ways that we can cut this. I mean, one of the things I thought was really striking is that women on average spend 48 more minutes a day working while watching the kids versus 16 minutes a day for men. So that's three times as much. And that actually really understates it in a lot of ways, because this is average time, regardless of whether you spend any time working, right?

Oh whoa.

If you're not working at all, you're a zero in here. Among women who worked at all in a given day, worked for pay -- I've had many people correct me here and point out that parenting is also work -- but worked-for-pay is more like two more hours a day for women. It's this really enormous impact, where women went from really not necessarily spending a lot of time in the day trying to do both of these things, work and childcare, to spending a ton of time doing it. And it's just much more for women than for men.

It was interesting again, overall across the board, women spend more time caring for children than men, even in married households, by about three hours.

It's sort of like eight hours versus five hours pre-pandemic.

And then it seemed that married households did go up by roughly equivalent amounts, but still nevertheless, women were spending an additional three hours or so doing that compared to men. But again, it seems like a lot of the jump came from unmarried households, and that single mothers specifically seem to have had an extremely difficult pandemic.

I mean, so this is super interesting. As you said, women spend more time on average responsible for the kids, taking care of the kids, spend more time on average than men, in every form of household. But for married couples, the marginal increase during the pandemic was actually split relatively evenly. They both spent around an hour and 45 minutes more a day taking care of the kids. In unmarried households, it's single women, single men. Single women spent two hours and 45 minutes more per day taking care of kids last year than in 2019. For single men, it was 15 more minutes.

It shows a lot of things, but it shows how much more burden there is on women in these households. It also shows you what happened for the kids, right? On average it's a little tricky when you start combining these things, but at a first approximation you get three and a half more hours of childcare time in a married household, but only, two hours and 45 more minutes in a unmarried household.

Oh. Interesting.

The burden is less overwhelming on women in married households, but then also the kids themselves are actually getting more time with a parent in the married household. So really, inequality is abounding here.

It was so interesting watching how you're able to crack these out by different cross tabs. I wanted to talk a little bit about some of these charts that you have about age groups. It was really, really interesting seeing how there are things that we know, like in general older folks tend to spend the most time doing house work at home and spend the most time watching TV or movies.

But there were a few inversions that ended up taking place over the pandemic. The grooming one was especially interesting. I was wondering if you just wanted to go through some of what you found, looking at how different age demos reacted to the year.

This stuff is so interesting. For most activities, the basic direction of the curves looked pretty similar across different demographics, even if the amount of time that they spent was different, but there are a few exceptions. I mentioned grooming earlier, how we all let our hair grow long and stopped showering, not speaking for either of us, of course.

No, of course. Naturally.

I am actually sporting a ponytail as we speak.


So, yeah that's new. For older people age 25 on up, all the different groups spent less time grooming themselves last year. But the great exception is young people, 15 to 24 year olds who actually spent more time grooming themselves. Meanwhile, exercise was exactly the opposite. Older people spent their time exercising more and young people were like, well, forget it. I only need to look good on TikTok. I don't actually need to look good in the real world.

That's so funny. That's exactly what it is.

I will say Ella wanted our headline to be something about more time grooming our lawns and less time grooming ourselves or something. But we worried we might get into a little bit of interpretational trouble there.

Yeah, no, that would be a tough headline to live down. I found it really interesting that again, the watching TV movies and video stayed flat while the texting, phone calls, videos exploded. How often people watch things per day is endlessly interesting to me because I think that people think that teenagers are glued to their phones, but in actuality, it’s older folks who watch the most screen time in general. Can we get into some of that?

So this necessitated a whole bunch of time on the phone with BLS, trying to understand how they categorize these things. Because the survey categories, and they freely admit this, right, the survey categories don't keep up completely with our changing times. Although, they put out this amazing, your readers and listeners will find this interesting, maybe more so than the general public will, they put out what they call a lexicon where they have all the different categorizations of time, but then it includes examples. And I was very impressed that one of the examples was recording TikTok videos. They're doing it!

Is that texting or is that using computers or smartphones?

That one actually fell under creative, it was like arts and crafts or something.

That's so wild.

Casselman doesn’t miss, people

So the tracking of this stuff, I was like, okay, well, where does watching YouTube fall? Does Zoom count as video? Or does it count as phone calls?

The watching TVs and movies includes at least in theory, YouTube videos, watching videos on your phone, watching videos on your tablet, your computer, whatever it is, as well as Netflix, or cable, or whatever, rabbit ears. And then there's this kind of catch all category of using computers, we label it using computers or smartphones. I think they categorize it as like computer use for leisure, not including gaming or something. And I was like, so what is that actually? And it's basically social media, as far as I can tell. Also "programming for fun," but somehow I'm guessing that's not a huge part of the average person's day.

I can't imagine that that is eclipsing TikTok these days.

Playing games, meanwhile, is another category which doesn't distinguish unfortunately, between computer games and board games. So we have no way of telling whether people were spending their time playing Fortnite or Monopoly.

I surmise given the increase of about like 30 minutes in 18 to 24s playing games that they're not playing Monopoly for an extra half hour a day.

It seems less likely that it's Monopoly. The time is interesting here. The scales get a little bit tricky, because the TV lines look pretty flat, but actually, people were spending 15 to 20 minutes more a day watching TV, which is not trivial. Whereas texting and phone calls and things were, for the youngest group, eight more minutes a day, but that's just a very big percentage increase, because people didn't use to talk on the phone at all before the pandemic.

I mean, you do really see young people spending a ton more time on phone, and text, and whatnot. They spend a ton more time basically on social media, they spend a lot more time playing games. But like the TV watching to your point, is really much more concentrated in an older demographic.

I know that you've been a fan of this survey for a very long time. It is a wild survey that the government does. I think it's just so interesting because time feels like one of those extremely zero-sum things where you can spend a minute doing one thing or you can spend it doing another. It's difficult to spend it doing both. I think it's just so interesting that the survey manages to really kind of clue into like what people care about. And the answer is increasingly screens, increasingly sleep and how those evolve over time. It was just a really interesting cross-section of stuff.

No, it's an amazing survey. The fact that they do it is just sort of incredible. And the fact that we're able to do it last year is incredible. It's funny, it's a really tricky one in some ways to write about it from a journalistic standpoint, because there are all these sort of strange decisions around. Are we interested in population wide averages or are we interested among people who participated at all? How much time did people spend working last year? The average amount of time spent working last year was about three hours a day. But not very many people work three hours a day.

It's very rare to work three hours a day. That's pretty rad if you get to do it.

Its very rare to work three hours a day. The average time conditional on working at all was like seven and a half hours.

Which makes far more sense.

Which makes way more sense. But only 40% or something of the population works at all on a given day. So then you get this weird three hour thing. We're sort of being forced to think through like, well, do we care among parents, how much time they spent caring for kids? Do we care among parents who spent any time caring for kids, how much time they spent? Because hey, we might want the zeros among parents. It's this sort of complicated thought process of what it is that we're actually interested in measuring here that gets a little tricky. But no, it's an amazing data set that does to your point, really does show how life changed last year.

Ben Casselman, you write about economics and business for the New York Times. You can be found, I believe in the business section of the New York Times.

Business section, do we do still have sections? Yeah. And you can find me in print in the business section or we have a website.

You frequently appear in the dead tree edition of the New York Times, which people should buy.

Strongly encourage.

Anywhere else folks can find you?

Yeah, I'm on Twitter @BenCasselman.

Excellent. Well, hey Ben, thank you so much.

Thanks so much for having me.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

Thank you so much for becoming a paid subscriber!

Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips, or feedback at

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Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.