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December 1998, Vol. 121, No. 12
Measuring time at work: are self-reports accurate?Jerry A. Jacobs
Are Americans working more than they have in decades? Does the answer depend upon how one measures an individuals time at work? Since the publication of Juliet Schors best-selling book, The Overworked American, questions regarding the amount of time workers devote to their jobs have received considerable attention.1 Interest in the length of the workweek is related to important shifts in the demography of the labor force. In particular, the rise of dual earner families has left many individuals feeling pressed for time.2 The "time famine" faced by working parents has generated much research and public discussion.3
John P. Robinson and his colleagues have carefully collected and analyzed time diary data from nationally representative samples of respondents since the 1960s. This research effort has produced many interesting and important findings regarding how Americans use their time.4 Based on their analyses of time diary data, Robinson and Ann Bostrom raised questions about the accuracy of the standard self-reported measure of working time. They suggest that respondents who claim to work long hours exaggerate the amount of time they spend on the job, compared with the time-diary measure. This finding challenges claims that have been made about trends in the time Americans spend on the job. For example, Philip L. Rones and others conclude that the proportion of Americans who work more than 50 hours per week has increased since 1970, based on analysis of data from the Current Population Survey (CPS).5 If self-reported working time is exaggerated, then this conclusion becomes suspect. Claims of a general increase in working time would also be called into question if workers exaggerate their time on the job.6
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1 Thomas J. Kneisner, "Review Essay: The Overworked American?" Journal of Human Resources, vol. 28, no. 33, pp. 68188; Barry Bluestone and Stephen Rose, "Overworked and Underemployed: Unraveling an Economic Enigma," The American Prospect, March-April 1997, pp. 5869; and Jerry A. Jacobs, and Kathleen Gerson, "The Endless Day or the Flexible Office? Working Hours, Work-Family Conflict, and Gender Equity in the Modern Workplace." Report for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 1997.
2 Arlie R. Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (New York, Metropolitan Books, 1997).
3 Sylvia Ann Hewlett, and Cornell West, The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for Americas Beleaguered Moms and Dads (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1998); Rosalind C. Barnett, "Home-to-Work Spillover Revisited: A Study of Full-Time Employed Women in Dual-Earner Couples," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1994, vol. 56, pp. 64756; and Ellen Galinsky, James T. Bond, and Dana E. Friedman, The Changing Workforce: Highlights of the National Study (New York, Families and Work Institute, 1993).
4 John P. Robinson, and Geoffrey Godbey, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (University Park, PA, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997); and John P. Robinson and Ann Bostrom, "The overestimated workweek? What the time diary measures suggest," Monthly Labor Review, August 1994, pp. 1123.
5 Philip L. Rones, Randy E. Ilg, and Jennifer M. Gardner, "Trends in the hours of work since the mid-1970s," Monthly Labor Review, April 1997, pp. 314; and Jacobs, and Gerson, "The Endless Day?" The Current Population Survey is a monthly survey of more than 50,000 households conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
6 Juliet Schor, The Overworked American (New York, Basic Books, 1991).
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