I subscribe to a number of journalism-related listservs. The dialogue is consistently helpful (I’m pleased to have been able to provide some of that help over the years) and, for an online venue, of genuinely high quality. Plus, there are occasional breakouts of geek jokes, which I’m fine with as long as they really are funny.
But this request for info came over today, and it sort of pulled me up short. I’m not going to identify the sender, because his identity is irrelevant to my larger point, which is that sometimes you can just tell that reporters are approaching a story within a frame they’ve either had handed to them because they lack the life experience to find one for themselves or one they once found for themselves but have not updated since. And if you’ve ever had children, and particularly if you’ve ever borne an unequal burden of duties related to those children (I haven’t, but I know people who have), you’re going to find this item the tiniest bit maddening:
I’m looking for advice. I’m trying to calculate how much free time the typical person working a 40 hour week has each day. This is for a story about overtime.
I’m allowing the following:
Sleep – 8 hours (don’t laugh)
Work – 8 hours (again, don’t laugh)
Commute – 40 minutes (20 each way)
Chores (like meal prep, etc.) – 2 hours
Which leaves for free time – 5.3 hours.
Does this sound reasonable?
Hmm. Gee. Does this sound reasonable? Um, NO?
Sleep: 8 hours (don’t laugh). OK, I won’t laugh, I’ll scoff, as in, oh, please: “Previous studies have indicated that the average adult needs eight to nine hours of sleep a night, but the typical American gets only seven and many get considerably less, without ever catching up.” (Also, apparently there is a perfectly sound physiological basis for saying that the sleep-deprived look like the walking dead. To scare yourself silly, read the whole page. My favorite passage was, ” … an accumulated sleep debt is potentially as detrimental to health as poor nutrition or a sedentary lifestyle. It may be as bad as smoking,” but I’m sure you’ll find one that speaks equally strongly to you.) There are a very few people who really can get by on substantially less sleep — a lot tend to be fairly elderly. But most of them, particularly the younger ones, are either kidding themselves, bipolar or both.
And that doesn’t even take in having kids. Let alone newborns.
Work: 8 hours (again, don’t laugh). I’m not laughing, I’m beating my head on my desk. Between 1969 and 1990, the number of hours worked annually by the average American increased by 163, according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor. That’s four additional weeks of work per year. And things have gotten much worse more recently; in the past 25 years, the average work week has increased from slightly over 40 hours per week to slightly over 50. For those of you doing the math at home along with me, that’s an additional work week per month, every month.
Now, in all fairness, a lot of people work that many hours because they enjoy it, and if that’s you, Godspeed. I did that for about the first 14 years of my newspaper career, ’til the kids came along, partly because there really was a rush in being so energized by a story that a midnight interview, or a 2 a.m. survey of a piece of property, or a 4 a.m. writing session because you’d tapped into a vein of thought that felt like lightning and smelled like victory wasn’t long hours, it was the last five yards before a touchdown, baby.
But a lot of people work those hours (even in first jobs alone) because they have to, because they need the money just to pay the bills or because their employer pretty much insists on it. Short version: You can’t assume an eight-hour workday anymore. More on this in a bit.
Commute: 40 minutes (20 each way): Eh. Could happen. My own commute is 10 minutes each way, and that’s the longest commute of my newspaper career. But in many, many metro areas, a 20-minute one-way commute is either a rumor or a dream. According to the Census Bureau, in 53 of the 68 largest American cities, the commute exceeded 20 minutes in 2003; according to radio rating service Arbitron, which uses massaged Census data, 220 of 286 cities in which radio stations use the service have average commutes in excess of 20 minutes. (Commuting time is a big deal in radio because the morning and afternoon rush hours tend to draw the largest and second largest number of listeners, respectively, at most stations on weekdays.)
In fairness, this isn’t a precise science — you can use Census Bureau decennial census data, the bureau’s American Community Survey data, other publicly available data sources and even some proprietary data to take a run at the question. But the bottom line is, the bulk of the largest cities/markets, which, by definition, contain the bulk of America’s population, report average commute times in excess of 20 minutes.
Chores (like meal prep, etc.) – 2 hours: Bwah! Who’s your maid, sonny? I’ve spent 2 hours just cleaning up the kitchen after a very casual meal involving my kids and some of their friends. (By “casual,” I mean, “None of the thrown food actually broke any windows.”) Sure, that’s not typical, but any time spent in “meal prep,” to say nothing of actually eating, is on top of that. (My breakfast is a cup of yogurt and some coffee while I check the paper to see what we did well or might have missed. My lunch is eaten at my desk almost every day, with at least some work being done during that period almost every day as well although I try to do a little recreational surfing as well.)
And that’s just meals. What about clothes? In a household of four with two young kids, guess how many loads of laundry you’ll do in a week. G’wan, guess. Bzzt. Wrong. You’re gonna need to take your shoes off to count that high. (And speaking of counting, if you’ve got your own washer and dryer, count your blessings. A lot of people don’t, which means commuting to the laundromat, sometimes on foot, with all that laundry — or, in some particularly poor and/or time-starved households, just sleeping without sheets, among other things. There’s some leisure time for ya.)
And don’t forget the life-threatening mold in the tub, shady-looking stuff around the base of the toilet, the trash cans that need emptying, the recycling that must be addressed. And did I mention the dusting and vacuuming? If I didn’t, I should have, given the 35 million Americans, 6 million of them kids, who are prone to dust/pollen allergies.
And that’s just the stuff you’ve got to do, or do a lot of, every day. That doesn’t even take into account routine home maintenance. That’s fairly time-consuming for anyone who can’t afford to just pay someone to do it all … and very time consuming if, as I did for nine years, you live in an older house. And let us not forget the yard/garden work, particularly since it looks as if, thanks to our friends in the extraction industries, we might be heading into a 12-month growing season.
Of course, if that happens, our plants, as loyal members of the economy, will have to grow 13 months in a 12-month year.
Which leaves for free time – 5.3 hours: A day? A DAY?!?
* * *
OK, I’m back. I had to change clothes because I peed my pants and I had to take some Vicodin because I sprung at least two ribs from laughing.
Buddy, 5.3 hours per work week of free time would be looking damn good to me right now. I’ve had months where I didn’t get 5.3 hours of free time … and didn’t get anywhere near 8 hours’ sleep a night, either.
I could’ve gotten eight seven hours’ sleep tonight, except that this thing was itching at me so badly that I knew I wasn’t going to sleep until I blogged about it. (So I’ll probably end up with four or five hours instead of seven. I’ll suck it up, as if I have a choice. Somewhere along the line I picked up some prophetic DNA — and I don’t mean the nice, cuddly prophets like Isaiah and Micah, I mean the “Son, God is about to KICK. YOUR. ASS because you’re such a greedy sumbitch” prophets like Nahum, or Ezekiel on one of his Jules Winnfield days — and sometimes that gene just wants what it wants and won’t be denied.)
And I won’t kid you: This hasn’t been a chore. I’ve had some fun with this. Hell, if your industry is dying and you can’t laugh at it, what good are ya?
But this is where the laughs stop. This is where you listen up. This is where the prophetic DNA doesn’t just want what it wants, it gets what it wants … and frankly, I don’t always know what that’s going to be or how happy I’m going to be about it, so let’s all just buckle up.
* * *
I don’t have a second job. I’m fortunate enough not to need one and exhausted enough not to want one. As for overtime, it’s almost always voluntary at my employer.
But there are an awful lot of Americans who aren’t that fortunate. Many of them have pre-overtime or pre-second-job schedules that don’t look very much different from what I just laid out. For them, overtime or moonlighting is a financial imperative for survival. And who’s going to watch the kids, and where the money to pay that person is going to come from, are only the first two problems those folks are going to have to address.
I’m not asking you to do anything about it, mainly because I have no idea what to tell you to do.
I just want you to think about those folks a little bit as you pay your bills tonight.
And then? Sleep well. For at least eight hours, if you can. After all, anything less is unhealthy.