Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Days of Our Lives

By Tim Olds

Spoiler alert: the next 850 words will tell you exactly how you will live out each day of the rest of your life. If you don’t want to know, stop reading now.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the really interesting stuff. We interviewed 180 adults in Australia and New Zealand across a range of ages from 16 to 96. Over the course of more than 9000 interviews, assisted by use-of-time software, we walked them through what they did the day before, building up a picture of how they spent their time.

We divide time use into areas called “superdomains”, each of which is subdivided into smaller “macrodomains”, “mesodomains” and “microdomains”. For example, one superdomain is called “Work”, and it is divided into three macrodomains called “Job”, “Study” and “Computer”. “Job” is further subdivided into “White Collar”, “Blue Collar” and so forth. I’m sure you get the picture. The nine superdomains are: Work, Sleep, Self-Care (eating and grooming), Chores, Physical Activity, Screen Time (TV and gaming), Social (communicating and socialising), Quiet Time (reading, chilling) and Transport (motorised and active).

Using these domains we can chart how people’s use of time changes across the lifespan – if not from cradle to grave, at least from pram to wheelchair.

We found that the Work superdomain slips away to nothing at about age 90. The Computer macrodomain has a bit of a bulge at about age 30, when people settle down in jobs where they are chained to their computer monitors. Employment starts to drop off at about the same age, as many women take time off to have children and reduce their working hours. There’s also a bit of a bulge in Study at about age 30 as mature-age students go back to university or TAFE to strengthen their qualifications.

Here are some other highlights:

  • There’s darkness at the end of the tunnel. From a high of 9 hours per night in the teenage years (averaged across weekends and weekdays), time in bed (though not always asleep) bottoms out at about age 40 at close to 8 hours per day. It then rises to about 8.5 hours in old age. That’s something to look forward to.
  • It’s chores or work – take your choice. As time devoted to work falls off, most of the slack is taken up by chores. Chores scarcely trouble the scorer in the teens, but all, particularly food preparation and gardening, increase steadily across the lifespan. Much of the remaining missing time is filled in by more reading (time spent reading increases from 23 minutes per day at age 20 to 82 minutes per day at age 75), and TV (which doubles from 2 hours per day to 4 hours per day).
  • The quantity of (passive) travel is constant. Until deep old age, people devote 60–90 minutes per day to motorised travel. This conforms to Hupkes’ Law of Constant Travel Time, which states that from the time of the horse and cart to the time of the maglev, travel time has always averaged … 60–90 minutes per day. Active transport (walking and cycling) drops off steadily as we age.
  • The quantity of self-care is constant, too. Across the lifespan we devote very close to 2 hours per day in about equal measure to eating and grooming. Both transport and self-care appear to be inelastic — no matter how much time spent in other domains changes around them, it seems we just need an hour of transport, an hour of eating and an hour of showering and dressing each day.
  • Use of time is gendered. I’m guessing you know this already, but let me confirm your stereotypes. Women spend about 50% more time on the phone or texting than men. It’s lowest when people are in their forties (when more men than women are working, and spend more time talking business), and highest (18 minutes per day for women, 10 minutes per day for men) in retirement. Women spend more time – this may shock you – in grooming. It’s about 50% more in their teens, but the gender gap decreases to about 20% in retirement. And women spend more time doing chores. The gender gap peaks in the late twenties and early thirties (due to children), when women spend twice as much time on chores as men, but decreases to a modest 25% more time for women in old age. Conversely, men spend about 25% more time in front of TV and videogame screens across the lifespan, and more time working and in physical activity (except in their thirties and forties).

    Of course, this cross-sectional snapshot doesn’t take into account historical trends. It may well be that as the current generation ages they will use the computer more, or work more as the age of retirement is rolled back. Perhaps time use will become less gendered as we move towards a more androgynous society.

    But certain patterns seem strongly fixed: the amount of time devoted to eating, travelling and grooming; sleep timing and chores structured around young children; and the increase in quiet time in retirement.

    Such are the days of our lives. Like sand through the hourglass.

    Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.