Purpose and History of Time-Use Studies in the United States

Purpose of time-use studies

Economists, social scientists, and other researchers design time-use studies to find out how people allocate their time between work, family, leisure, and other activities. Many people increasingly feel a “time crunch” trying to meet all of their work and family obligations, and time-use data provide insight into how household members divide up these duties.

Time-use data also measure the time spent in activities such as childcare, eldercare, and volunteer work. These activities are currently not included in measures of domestic economic output. Measuring these activities provides a better picture of all economic activity performed in the United States. Time-use data also provide more accurate information on labor for measuring productivity.

Finally, researchers use these data to compare time-use patterns in the United States with other countries. Many industrialized countries, such as Canada, Australia, and numerous European countries, collect and publish time-use data on a regular basis. An increasing number of developing countries also conduct time-use surveys.

History of time-use studies in the United States

Various organizations have conducted time-use studies in the United States in the past. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored the earliest study during the 1920s and early 1930s. This study primarily collected time diaries from farm housewives.

The University of Michigan and the University of Maryland conducted the majority of the most recent time-use studies. The University of Michigan conducted its studies in 1965, 1975-76, 1981, and 1982. The 1965 study surveyed adults ages 18 to 64 nationwide who lived in mainly urban areas and were employed outside the farm sector. Subsequent University of Michigan studies included all adults over 18 and their spouses.

The University of Maryland conducted time-use studies of individuals nationwide in 1985, 1992-94, 1995, 1997-1998, and 2001. The 1985 study included data collection for children over 12. Subsequent University of Maryland studies focused mainly on adults age 18 and over.

Periodically, other private or government organizations conducted time-use surveys. These mainly targeted specific populations, such as children, or residents in a specific metropolitan area.

History of the American Time Use Survey

The American Time Use Survey is the first federally-funded, continuous time-use survey in the United States. It is sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1991, a bill was proposed in Congress, which called for BLS to conduct a time-use study that would be used to calculate the monetary value of unpaid work. Although the bill did not pass, BLS decided to pursue the possibility of a time-use survey.

Between 1991 and 1997, BLS convened various working groups that studied the conceptual issues and feasibility of conducting a time-use survey. In 1997, BLS conducted the first pilot study and presented the results at a conference cosponsored by BLS and the MacArthur Network on Family and the Economy.

The results of the pilot study were well-received, and BLS convened another working group that developed a more detailed plan. This plan became the foundation of the current American Time Use Survey. In 1999, BLS presented this proposal at a workshop sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy workshop endorsed the BLS proposal, and development continued.

In 2000, the survey received official government approval and funding, and interagency collaboration between BLS and the U.S. Census Bureau began. The two agencies conducted a field test in 2001 and 2002. The American Time Use Survey went into full production in January 2003, and over 124,000 interviews have been completed through the end of 2011. BLS has already released findings from the 2003 through 2011 surveys.


Last Modified Date: January 3, 2013