Caregiving, labor, job search, and leisure: The time use of prime-age adults

Portrait of a young Asian woman sitting at home, doing some freelance job while taking care of her little baby boy. Home living and lifestyle concepts with Asian people.

In a recent Hamilton Project strategy paper, “Labor Force Nonparticipation: Trends, Causes, and Policy Solutions,” Jay Shambaugh, Ryan Nunn, and Jana Parsons take a comprehensive look at the impediments to labor force participation. Several of the barriers that they identify, particularly weak labor demand and family caregiving, relate to how potential labor market participants are spending their time and how they juggle competing time commitments.

In this analysis, we examine how prime-age (ages 25–54) men and women allocate their time, overall and by parental status. We call attention to two concepts relevant to increasing labor force participation rates: job search and caregiving. Job search includes those activities—checking job postings, submitting applications, preparing for an interview, and so forth—that help you find a job. Caregiving includes activities that involve caring for, helping, and engaging with adult and child household members.

We find that employed men, regardless of parental status, spend similar amounts of time on work, commuting, and personal care. Men with children spend more time on nonmarket labor—specifically, on family caregiving—than men without children. For unemployed or nonparticipant men with children, a meaningful portion of their day is spent on nonmarket labor and caregiving, whereas those without children allocate more time to leisure. Women, whether they are working, looking for work, or not working, spend several hours per day on nonmarket labor. Women with children spend a larger share of their waking hours on caregiving activities (a measure that captures much but not all of the time spent in the company of their kids).

For some, household obligations cut into the time that can be spent on market work and job search activities. Women spend less time on these activities than men. Though unemployed fathers and mothers spend about the same amount of time on caregiving, unemployed fathers spend about 40 more minutes a day doing job search-related activities than unemployed mothers.

A Typical Day in the Life of a Prime-Age Adult

The data for this analysis are from the American Time Use Survey, a supplement to the Current Population Survey, pooled for the years 2013 through 2018. We aggregate reported time into the following categories: personal care, leisure (screen time or other leisure), civic engagement, nonmarket labor (caregiving or other nonmarket labor), education, and work (work, commute, or job search). Estimates are for the average hours per day for each time use category and are produced from data drawing on both weekday and weekend days.[1]

Figure 1 shows how prime-age men and women spend their time. We show time use by gender and then by labor force status: employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force. We removed from the analysis any person who reported school enrollment in order to provide a clear picture of the time use of prime-age adults who are not students.

fig 1

Unsurprisingly, the days of prime-age men and women who work look quite different from those who are unemployed or out of the labor force. Average time spent on work, search, and commuting takes up about 40 percent of waking hours for men and more than a quarter of waking hours for women. Employed men spend more time on market work than employed women but employed women spend one more hour per day than employed men on nonmarket labor and caregiving. Those who are employed sleep less than the nonemployed and spend less time in leisure activities or on screen time.

At a given point in time, the majority of those who are unemployed report spending time on job search-related activities. Unemployed men spend about an hour per day on job search, whereas unemployed women spend less than half an hour on job search. Unemployed women spend a total of 5 hours per day on caregiving and other nonmarket labor activities, while unemployed men only spend a total of 3.4 hours on nonmarket labor.

Using the same data pooled from 2003 to 2007, Alan Krueger and Andreas Mueller (2010) found that unemployed 20- to 65-year-olds spent an average (during weekdays) of 41 minutes on job search activities. For this same age group, but including both weekdays and weekends from 2013 to 2018, we also find that those who are unemployed spend 41 minutes on job search activities while prime-age adults (ages 25–54) spend slightly more time on search. Though the unemployed spend nontrivial time on job search, it is far from the number of hours required by many means-tested programs. Among unemployed job searchers, we find that about 2 in 5 spend at least 20 hours per week on job search overall (58.7 percent of unemployed male job searchers and 23.3 percent of unemployed female job searchers).

All groups of women—regardless of labor force status—on average spend more time on nonmarket labor and caregiving than their male counterparts. Women out of the labor force have a nonmarket job with nonmarket labor hours to match: female labor force nonparticipants spend more than twice the number of hours per day (6 hours) than male labor force nonparticipants (2.8 hours) on nonmarket labor and caregiving. Men out of the labor force spend more hours on screen time and leisure (9 hours per day) than other groups.

The distribution of time use by gender among labor force nonparticipants aligns with the reasons that nonparticipants give for not working (see figure 12 and related discussion in “Labor Force Nonparticipation: Trends, Causes, and Policy Solutions”). Family and home responsibilities are the most common reason that millions of women cite for not working and are a nontrivial reason cited among men. Having excluded students from the time use analysis, the vast majority of the remaining nonparticipants likely suffer health problems or have a disability that constitutes a barrier to labor force entry. This is a critical context for understanding the allocation of hours among male labor force nonparticipants.

Parental Juggling Acts

In the next two figures, we compare the time use of men and women who do not have their own child under 18 living at home (regardless of whether they are parents), and then of mothers and fathers with their own child under 18 living at home. Figure 2 shows the time use by employment status for those who do not have a minor child at home (but may have adult children); for simplicity, we call these adults “childless.”

fig 2

Among prime-age adults without children at home, those who are working exhibit different time-use patterns than the unemployed and those not in the labor force. Childless adults who are employed spend the least time on nonmarket labor and on leisure. Among the employed, the differences between working men and women without children at home are small but nevertheless evident: employed men spend more time working and in leisure than women while women spend more time on nonmarket labor and on personal care.

Those who are unemployed as well as those who are out of the labor force and do not have children at home spend their time similarly, except for the time that the unemployed spend searching for a job. While unemployed childless men spend about twice as much time as women on job search activities, they spend about an hour-and-a-half more on leisure per day and more than an hour less on non-market labor than do their female counterparts. Men without a child at home who are out of the labor force spend about 9 hours per day on leisure, 70 percent of which is screen time. Again, we note that this aligns with the distribution of reasons given for labor force nonparticipation by gender; once caregiving is taken out of the equation, the distribution of reasons male and female labor force nonparticipants give for not working are substantively similar, dominated by health concerns.

Figure 3 shows the time use of fathers and mothers who reside with at least one minor child. The smallest gender differences are among unemployed parents. Continuing a trend that can be seen in the aggregate and among the childless, unemployed fathers spend more of their non-sleep time (approximately 40 minutes) searching for work than unemployed mothers and approximately 45 minutes more on screen time. In turn, unemployed mothers spend more time on nonmarket labor. Unemployed mothers and fathers have the smallest gender differences in caregiving.

fig 3

Working mothers and fathers spend the same amount of total time on work-related and nonmarket labor-related activities, but the balance is different by gender. Working fathers spend more time commuting and on work-related activities while working mothers spend over 50 percent more time on nonmarket labor and direct care. Employed women without children are able to devote roughly 45 minutes more per day to work-related activities than employed women with children. Working fathers have about 20 minutes more of leisure time relative to working mothers.

Parents who are not working spend more time with their children and other household members. Family caregiving constitutes 6.8 (10.7) percent of employed father’s (mother’s) non-sleep time, 12.8 (14.5) percent of unemployed father’s (mother’s) non-sleep time, and 13.3 (20.1) percent of nonparticipant father’s mother’s non-sleep time. Compared to analysis by Jonathan Guryan, Erik Hurst, and Melissa Kearney (2008), which used ATUS diaries pooled from 2003 to 2006, we find that working mothers are spending the same amount of time with their children as in the prior study’s period, but that all fathers and non-working mothers are spending more hours on caregiving activities during the 2013 to 2018 period.

The evidence presented here aligns with recent work on the time use of parents. Previous studies leveraging time use data confirm the trade-off parents must make between allocating time toward work versus direct care. Frank Heiland, Joseph Price, and Riley Wilson (2014) find that employed mothers’ additional hours spent on work reduces the amount of time spent with their children; however, the authors do not find evidence that fathers compensate for lost hours spent on caregiving due to mothers’ time at work. Concerning unemployed parents, other research finds that unemployment is associated with more time spent on caregiving (Bauer and Sonchak 2017; Morrill and Pabilonia 2012).

In previous work, we detailed how youth between the ages of 16 and 24 allocate their time between competing commitments of school, work, personal obligations, and leisure. The time-use patterns of prime-age adults, particularly of parents, are distinct. Across age groups, teens and young adults spend the most time on education-related activities while prime-age adults spend the most time on work-related activities. Female youth spend over three times as many hours in an average day on nonmarket labor, such as caregiving, than their male counterparts (Bauer et al. 2019). Among prime-age parents in the same labor force categories, gender differences in nonmarket labor attenuate; but, our analysis does not address at the household level how work and home obligations are balanced across members.

The first Employment Situation Report of 2020 will be released next week, providing the unemployment rate for December 2019. Fully understanding that statistic requires an understanding of how job search interacts with other uses of time. This analysis shows that for some, especially mothers, caregiving and other household obligations reduce the amount of time that can be spent looking for work and working. Hamilton Project policy proposals—from increasing labor demand to investing in child care to supporting two-earner households—would help overcome the specific challenges that come from competing obligations to improve living standards.

[1] For additional technical documentation, please see “Employment, Education, and the Time Use of American Youth.”