Spare a thought for those too rich in time

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THE council car parks are gradually filling up, the morning saunter is back to being the morning rush, and suddenly the world once again ticks to bosses’ time.

But not for some of us. A recent study has looked at the doleful plight of those Australians who (a) have spare time and (b) don’t know what to do with it.

In the latest issue of the Electronic International Journal of Time Use Research (eijtur.org), Jennifer Baxter offers ‘‘an examination of the characteristics and time use of those who have unfilled spare time’’.

That doesn’t mean Dr Baxter herself has too much time on her hands. She’s made a tool out of numbers. Her work will help people and organisations deal with unemployment, disability, retirement, sickness, poverty and just being young, all of them conditions that lead to what the researchers call ‘‘enforced spare time’’.

They also help the opposite group, those who feel constantly rushed. Both situations ‘‘contribute to poor well-being’’, to use the safely neutral research term – depression, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, isolation and the disintegration of communities and traditional social ties.

With figures taken from Australian Bureau of Statistics time-use surveys a decade apart, Dr Baxter comes up with proof for the intuitive assumption that unfilled – empty, aimless – spare time is definitely not a problem for 90percent of Australians.

Over the decade, the totals who ‘‘always’’ or ‘‘often’’ felt they had time on their hands continued to hover around 7percent for men and 5percent for women.

However, those of us who felt constantly rushed jumped from 33percent to 46percent for men, and from 39 to 49percent for women.

Pointless, boring (often television-watching) time was more common among the youngest men and women, especially those still living at home; men living alone; both genders, if they had little or no work or care duties; the ill; and non-English speakers.

The research turned up some oddities. Unpredictable work patterns mean that people who work the longest hours are also likely to have more empty spare time. Women living alone are far less likely than men to feel their spare time is unfilled.

And Australians between 55 and 74 have more spare time than any other group, but are the least likely of all of us to feel that it’s ‘‘empty’’ time.

Because the ABS uses time diaries to garner its statistics, Dr Baxter was able to make a revealing connection: she correlated the responses of 15- to 24-year-olds living at home who said they always or often had unfilled spare time with those of their mothers.

Surprise, surprise: 53percent of these bored children had mothers who reported being constantly rushed; only 3percent of the mothers said they ‘‘always or often’’ had spare time in which they didn’t know what to do.

‘‘It seems therefore that there may be some potential here for a reallocation of activities within households,’’ Dr Baxter noted, with commendable restraint.

What’s more, thanks to the spread of computers, particularly laptops, it seems Australians don’t even know when the time actually is spare.

Our electronic playmates are what Melissa Gregg, of Sydney University, calls ‘‘attention-seeking technologies’’. In an edited extract from her book Work’s Intimacy (see inside.org.au), developed from a three-year study, she writes about the way the unseen sleeve-tugging of an insistent computer can intrude on family life.

She details adults fighting over who gets time on the computer: he wants to work for the family business, she wants to work on office emails to make up for the time off she took to pick up the kids. Women go spare at men who bring a laptop to the dinner table; men moan about women who sit up in bed clicking away.

Even the family that types together isn’t necessarily together. Dad or mum – more often mum, because dad prefers the study – sits down at the table with the kids, each one on their laptop.

But she’s dealing with work so she can get a good start on the day tomorrow, because her childless and ambitious workmate – whom she really enjoys working with – sets such high standards.

‘‘Meanwhile, the next generation of workers grows accustomed to providing entertainment for themselves by way of the same [online] devices,’’ Dr Gregg writes.

Still, just last week scientists moved the Doomsday Clock, which measures the world’s nearness to nuclear apocalypse, one minute closer to midnight.

Maybe it’s not only the bosses’ clocks that are ticking into our spare time.

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