Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time

Michael Lynn (Associate Professor of Consumer Behavior and Marketing, Cornell Hotel School, Ithaca, New York, USA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Lynn, M. (2000), "Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 17 No. 1, pp. 73-87. https://doi.org/10.1108/jcm.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Time, like money, is a scarce resource spent on the consumption of goods and services. Acquiring, using and disposing of products all require time. Furthermore, most people must spend time working in order to obtain the money used to purchase products. Hence the well‐known phrase, “Time is money”. These considerations suggest that information about consumers’ perceptions, evaluations and uses of time may provide insight into their consumption decisions and market behaviors. One source of such information is John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey’s book, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time. There is too much information in this book to summarize adequately here, but I will try to provide a sense of the book’s contents as well as its usefulness to marketing academics and practitioners.

Time for Life is primarily a report of time diary studies conducted by Robinson and his colleagues in 1965, 1975, and 1985. Other sources of information about people’s perceptions and uses of time are also presented and discussed, but the bulk of the book is devoted to describing, analyzing and interpreting the authors’ own research. The book is divided into six parts as described below.

In Part 1, the authors introduce the topic of time and describe the time diary method they employ to learn how people actually use time.

In Part 2, the authors present their findings about how much time Americans spend doing paid work, household care and personal care. Among the findings reported are the following:

  • Mothers spent more time with their children in 1985 than they did in 1975.

  • Women (and men) spent more time shopping in 1985 than they did in 1975.

Both of these findings may come as surprises to marketers and others who assumed that women’s increasing participation in the workforce left them with less time for things like child care and shopping.

In Part 3, the authors look at how much free time Americans have and at how they spend that free time. Among the more notable findings reported in this section of the book are the following:

  • People had approximately five hours’ more free time per week in 1985 (and 1975) than they did in 1965.

  • The average time spent watching television increased by almost five hours per week from 1965 to 1975, but increased less than one hour per week from 1975 to 1985.

These findings belie the widespread perception that time is becoming scarcer. They also indicate that almost all of Americans’ gains in free time since 1965 have been spent on increased television viewing.

In Part 4, the authors examine demographic differences in the use of time. Among the findings reported are the following:

  • Gender differences in the amount of time spent doing paid work, doing housework, eating meals and grooming all declined from 1965 to 1985, but gender differences in the amount of time spent on child care and shopping either persisted or increased over the same period.

  • College educated people spent more time on paid work, commuting to work, shopping, child care, reading, going to cultural events and fitness activities than did less educated people.

These and related findings could help marketers anticipate demographic differences in consumer demand, decision‐making roles, and media habits, which would allow them to make better targeting decisions.

In Part 5, the authors examine how people feel about the availability of time and the activities they spend their time on. They also compare time use in the USA with time use in Japan, Canada and Russia. Among the findings reported are the following:

  • Feelings of being rushed increased during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Shopping was among the uses of time that people reported liking the least.

Direct‐mail catalog marketers would be pleased to learn these findings, but might be disturbed by evidence presented in this section of the book indicating that time pressures and feelings of being rushed may be declining in the 1990s.

In Part 6, the authors summarize and conclude their book.

As should be evident from the preceding description, Time for Life has several things to recommend it. First, it has a topic which most people will find interesting. Time is an important resource, and the perceived scarcity of time that the authors document should only enhance the appeal of this topic. Second, the authors have collected a lot of solid data about Americans’ use of time, so this book is genuinely informative (if somewhat dry due to statistical overload). Finally, much of the information in the book is relevant to marketers. Information about demographic differences and trends over time in consumers’ daily activities can help marketers make targeting decisions and predict demand for various products. Information from time diary studies can also help validate findings from other types of marketing research to the extent that the two methods produce converging results.

Despite its strengths, however, I doubt that most marketers will get a lot of practical value out of reading Time for Life. The authors of this book are social scientists, not marketers, so they do not discuss the marketing implications of their findings. More importantly, the last large time diary study reported in the book was conducted in 1985. Thus, the book’s information is simply too dated to be of much marketing value.

In conclusion, Time for Life is an informative book about an interesting topic – how Americans spend their time. However, readers looking for help with practical marketing problems would be better advised to spend their time on other books.

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