Leisure Time and Social Capital

The Free Exchange blog at the Economist offered some interesting coverage of the OECD’s 2009 Society at a Glance report, including a special report on measuring leisure. Some of the findings are perhaps not that surprising: Americans tend to work more hours per year (1,896 per year), than any other OECD country. In terms of leisure time, Americans tend to fall towards the middle of the pack, with about five hours (21.6 percent of their day) occupied by leisure time. There is also a strong gendered component of leisure time, with American men having almost forty percent more leisure time than women.

 The survey data get most interesting when looking at leisure activities. In most countries, respondents indicated the bulk of their leisure time was occupied with watching television or radio at home. Engaging in social activities, such as visiting friends or participating/attending events, took up a much smaller amount of time. In some countries (including Turkey, New Zealand, and Canada), social activities took a relatively large portion of time, nearly equaling the amount of time spent watching television. But in many countries (Australia, Japan, Spain, and the United States, among others), a disproportionate share of leisure time was occupied by individual activities, particularly watching television.

Why should we care how people spend their time? According to Robert Putnam, the development of social capital depends on engaging in collective, social activities. In his seminal book Bowling Alone, Putnam argues that social capital—loosely defined as networks of trust and reciprocity—depends on the development of broader social connections between individuals. Without collective activities, those connections begin to break down. This is why Putnam laments the decline of bowling leagues in the United States. In this context, the importance of bowling leagues (as opposed to bowling alone) rests in the ability of sports leagues (or dance groups, or community socials, or any other number of collective social activities) to bring desperate individuals together and encourage them to think as a collective social body, with empathy for the other members of the group. Absent that, the collective sacrifice that democracy entails begins to wane.

Think about that next time you sit down to watch an hour (or five) of American Idol.

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