Who's really time poor?

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Who's really time poor?

Posted 19/07/2010 by Luke Buckmaster


What exactly does it mean to be time poor? Is it simply a matter of work-life imbalance? Can anyone—poor or wealthy—be time poor? Or should time poverty actually be about more profound issues such as control over one’s life? These are the kinds of questions addressed by Professor Bob Goodin of the ANU in his keynote address to the 11th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference (Melbourne Convention Centre, 7 July). Goodin presented the findings of his research in the area of work-life balance (undertaken with colleagues, James Mahmud Rice, Antti Parpo and Lina Erikson) published in the book, Discretionary time: a new measure of freedom.
 He argued that the major time use studies used by researchers and policy makers are misleading because they do not distinguish between those who are time poor by necessity and those who have more choice in the matter. Does it make sense, he asked, to think of someone such as himself—an academic working 60 to 70 hours per week in a job he loves—and someone working long hours (perhaps in two jobs) in order to survive as similarly disadvantaged?


Goodin and his colleagues attempted to draw out this question through measures of time spent on various activities of daily life, including through using the poverty line as the ‘line of necessity’ in the area of wage labour. Hours of work undertaken by individuals after reaching the poverty line were taken to be increasingly a matter of choice. Using this approach, Goodin’s team found that, for example, lone mothers have 27 hours per week less discretionary time (‘time which is free to spend as one pleases’) than a person in a dual-earner couple with no children. Importantly, the main time use studies make no distinction between these two groups.

For Goodin and his colleagues, the purpose of making the distinction between choice and necessity in time use is not to deny the importance of time poverty. In fact, the opposite is the case. In Discretionary time: a new measure of freedom, Goodin and colleagues argue that access to discretionary time ought to be considered as important as financial wealth in attempts to measure human wellbeing (‘how much time we have matters just as much as how much money’). Using data from the USA, Australia, Germany, France, Sweden and Finland, Goodin’s team attempt to illustrate how control over one’s time varies across countries depending on prevailing social arrangements (including the type of welfare system). Through this approach, they highlight the idea that public policy can have an impact on levels of time poverty in a given society—and, indeed, that control of one’s time should be central to efforts aimed at improving human welfare.

Goodin can be heard discussing the concept of discretionary time in this recent interview on ABC Radio National's Life matters program.


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