July 06, 2005

Time Off v. Leisure

Jane Galt makes a point worth thinking about, in re the debate about Europeans taking more vacation. It's not clear that giving up wages in exchange for more time away from the office always means more leisure time. To take one obvious example, I don't like to cook very much, by which I mean that there's no job I could be doing that would not be preferable to cooking. (Well, maybe cleaning toilets, but even then...) Still, I try to spend a decent amount of time cooking—and I'm not awful at it!—because I'm picky and not a big fan of canned Spaghetti-o's every night. Shopping, cooking, and cleaning takes me a decent amount of time each day. At a certain point, I would much rather spend that time working if I could use the extra wages to order delivery or eat out. Even better examples exist—working overtime in order to make enough to hire a maid or buy a washing machine might be preferable to spending the time doing the chores yourself or hauling your nappy socks down to the laundromat. Or a dishwasher or a microwave. Comparative advantage and all.

But obviously not everyone's job is like that. I'm lucky enough now to enjoy what I do and will happily work late or bring stuff home, and I don't feel like someone else is exploiting me and my labor. But I've certainly had jobs before where I've felt like there, where I'd watch the clock hit 5pm, toss off my employee nametag and bolt. I would have much rather scrubbed my own toilet for two hours than work an extra two hours at, say, CVS in order to hire someone to scrub my toilet. So a decrease in the workweek would've been awesome for that job. More importantly, one's wage level is another consideration, it's easy to work less if you're not scraping to get by, etc. Now I don't know if anyone's done any studies on this question—I assume yes—but I'd like to know how and when, and for whom, less time at work actually translates into more leisure time.

Meanwhile, Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote (2005) suggest that more "mandatory" vacation time, as found in Europe, ends up having all sorts of "social multiplier" effects. That makes sense: from a pure productivity standpoint, it's pretty moronic that we have two-day weekends for all workers, rather than stagger everyone's "weekend" across the workweek. Much more would get done! But weekends are fun precisely because everyone else, in theory, is also off work, so you can go hang out. Likewise, long vacations are more fun if they occur when everyone else is taking vacation. But it's hard to coordinate this sort of society-wide vacation time without European-style labor regulations. Otherwise, presumably, a few workaholics put upward pressure on how much a person "ought" to be at the office.
-- Brad Plumer 1:10 AM || ||