In an article entitled “Hours of Work in U.S. History,” Robert Whaples surveys the history of work in the U.S. One of the charts he includes, taken from the work of Robert Fogel, shows the trend in lifetime hours of work compared to lifetime discretionary hours.

Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040

Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000

*Note: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.*

What surprised me was the disparity with those from just a few generations ago. We have not just a little bit more discretionary and leisure time, but a lot more. On average, there’s been a significant reduction in work hours and a great increase in time for leisure. And yet, it’s not uncommon today to hear complaints about not having enough time.

So if we have plenty of discretionary time, why doesn’t it always feel like it?

Maybe we feel compelled to stay busy. And so our schedule gets packed so tight we wind up exhausted from the pace we’ve chosen to run. Or, maybe it’s the large numbers of diversions we have at our fingertips that will gladly consume as much time as we’ll give them. And so we end up spending more time than we realize without receiving any lasting value or satisfaction in return.

Regardless of how we may feel, many of us have a wealth of time at our discretion—at least historically speaking. But of course, it’s up to us as to how we’ll choose to use it.

Hat tip to Brian Harris’s article which referenced Whaples’s and Fogel’s work.