Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pie Chart of the Day - What do the Unemployed Spend Their Time Doing?

Most people who pay attention to what's going on know that the unemployment rate is high - just over 9% at the moment. In addition, another 16% of workers are underemployed - i.e. they are only working part-time when they'd like to be working full time. So, 25% of workers have a lot of time that they'd like to be working but aren't - what do all of these people spend their time doing?

The picture, painted by a recently released NBER working paper, is worrisome - unemployed people spend almost 50% of their foregone working hours on sleeping, watching TV, and "other leisure" activities, and only 2% on looking for a job or earning money on the side:

Thanks to the Atlantic Wire for putting together the chart.

Granted, a lot of the rest of the time is going into relatively productive activities around the house, and given that most Americans don't get enough sleep, I'm not sure that the unemployed using some of their down time to overcome sleep deprivation is a terrible thing. But still, I'm surprised by this time distribution, and I'm not sure what to make of this. Are the unemployed just really lazy? Are they depressed? Do they not know that looking for a job is, itself, a nearly full time job? (To be fair, looking for a job does suck, however.) Interesting stuff ....


  1. "Do they not know that looking for a job is, itself, a nearly full time job?"

    It's been a long time since I was looking for a job, but my girlfriend has been at it recently. I'm not really clear on how you'd spend all day every day at it once you get past the initial phase of contacting everyone you know who might be helpful (assuming you're not a new college grad who does not, in fact, know anyone who'd be helpful) and getting up to speed on the relevant job listings. I know an economist takes it as axiomatic that everything is frictionless and continuous and in a constant state of perfect self-adjusting equilibrium, so by definition if you spent an hour a day for six months looking for a job before finding one, then six hours a day would get the job in one month, but how does that work in reality? At some elite level you might be doing a global job hunt, but normal people will mostly have to look in places they could realistically go to for a job interview (if you are unemployed you don't have a lot of spare money for travel) and certainly in a country they have permission to work in. (Whatever NAFTA means, it doesn't mean my girlfriend could just decide to start looking for work in Toronto, thereby increasing her job search radius.)

    I do know people who spend lots of time knitting and selling that for basically trivial amounts of money, I'm not sure if that should count as a productive other-income-generating-activity or not. Some people may have lots of potential other-income possibilities, but for the most part what is an income generating activity other than 'working' at a 'job'? (Or, at any rate, ones that you could report when asked...)

    I'll agree that TV watching isn't the most productive use of time, but I'll also admit that I watch TV, too.

  2. Michael:

    I'm not entirely sure what you're trying to say. I'm not one of those economists who "takes it as axiomatic that everything is frictionless and continuous and in a constant state of perfect self-adjusting equilibrium."

    In fact, when I said that "looking for a job is, itself, a nearly full time job," I was speaking more out of personal experience than anything else. I spent the better part of my entire second year of graduate school looking for a job, and ended up turning down a few offers before I found my current position - and during those several months, I'd say that I probably spent somewhere between 10-15 hours a week actively looking for a job in some way - scouring online postings, customizing resumes and cover letters, filling out applications, writing essays, networking, etc.

    But, if unemployed people spend on average only 1% of the time they would otherwise be working on looking for a job, that means they spend about 4.8 minutes per day looking for work, or a whopping 24 minutes a week.

    If you only spend 24 minutes a week looking for a job, I suspect you'll be looking for a LOOONG time before you find a job, unless you get very lucky.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat

  3. We may not think everything is frictionless, but I suspect the people compiling this data do. I also doubt the numbers have any real accuracy, I'm actually punching categories on a smartphone app at work to try to get some idea how much time I'm spending on different activities and I can tell you that's not very accurate, I can't imagine the survey data is good for much.

    True enough though that 5 minutes a day is pretty much nothing, if that number is actually real. I don't have access to the actual paper.

    I can see spending 10 hours a week, at least at times (if someone is actually willing to interview you then, there you go, you'll be spending time getting prepared), but I also wouldn't call that full-time.

  4. Well, I'm one of those unemployed folks. And long term unemployed at that. While my time usage is different from that above, I will say I have NOT spent enough time looking for work.


    There isn't any. In a down market, the niches become more pronounced. That is, employers want and can get very specific skill sets, which I simply can't offer. I'd add that I believe my circumstances may be more unique than others in that my skills are very general and don't really lend themselves to our never ending progression toward specialization.

    That said, I could do more. I do believe that hidden by these stats are the fact that the long term unemployed are probably by and large very depressed. This doesn't lend itself to finding work. Being unemployed also becomes self-fulfilling. When you have work, it IS easier to land another job. When you don't, you are viewed as second tier. Right, wrong, it doesn't matter. It simply is.

  5. Anonymous,

    Thank you for sharing such a personal account and adding a different, new side of this picture. I wish you all the best, and I hope you're able to find work soon, if that's what you're looking for.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat