What, exactly, do Americans do all day?

Hanging a clock-editedLast week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released results from the 2013 American Time Use Survey. This survey, administered every year for the last decade, asks respondents–selected from people who have recently completed the Current Population Survey–to keep a diary of how they spent their time for a full 24 hour period. These data allow us to understand something about the “average” day not only for the population overall, but also for various subgroups, such as the unemployed or elderly. As you read, consider: How helpful is information about the “average” respondent?

While there is a fair amount of data to mine, let’s start at the highest level, by looking at time use on an “average” weekday across all respondents:ATUS_piechartPerhaps most notable is the sheer amount of sleep people seem to be getting: apparently, a healthy 8.5 hours a night. Not bad!

…however. As detailed over at Wonkblog, it turns out that “sleeping” is what happens between getting into bed and getting out of bed, and also takes into account naps. This way of calculating sleep doesn’t differentiate between deep slumber and “dozing off to Netflix” (I know I’m not the only one).  Similarly, things like “reading in bed” could feasibly occur during these otherwise allocated sleep hours.

And though 99.9 percent of all respondents reported that they slept at some point in the previous 24 hours, the time reported for other activities is averaged across everyone in the survey, whether they did or did not report them in their time-use “diary”. This is where we need to pay attention to what we mean by “average”. Continue reading

How to Succeed Financially: The American Template

In the U.S., the traditional narrative of how to succeed financially in has been to do the following:

  1. Go to college and earn a degree
  2. Use that degree to get a good job (with health insurance) that pays enough money to cover your basic needs and allows you to build some savings.
  3. With your savings, a mortgage loan, and maybe a little help from your parents, buy a home (presuming it makes sense vs. renting). This will save money on rent and home equity will be a major portion of your nest egg.
  4. Take advantage of institutionalized savings mechanisms (401K or other pension plans) to start saving for retirement to supplement Social Security. With diminishing payouts and concerns about the future solvency of Social Security, supplemental savings are increasingly important.
  5. After many years of work, retire and live comfortably off of your savings and Social Security.

While the notion of a strict linear model of the life course is increasingly outdated, there are also questions about the veracity of its basic assumptions–is a college degree worth the price tag? Is homeownership really a good investment? Yet, in the absence of clear alternatives, this remains the dominant life course narrative. Taking advantage of the online analysis tools at the University of California, Berkeley’s Survey Documentation and Analysis (SDA) program, I used the triennial Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF) and annual Current Population Survey (CPS) data to examine trends in work, benefits, and wealth among young working-age adults, those aged 25 to 44, over the past twenty years, with an eye to examining each step in this traditional narrative.

Continue reading

Much Ado About Canada

According to a recent study, the average Canadian household’s net worth (total assets minus total liabilities) is, for the first time in recent history, higher than the average American household’s net worth; more than $40,000 higher, in fact. Is this a triumph of “hardheaded Canadian socialism”? Is it Barack Obama’s fault? (or George Bush’s, depending on the internet commenter’s political persuasion)? Does this even mean anything? Let’s consider a few things before jumping to conclusions…

Portfolio Composition Matters

Talking about net worth is inherently tricky because net worth alone does not tell us much about the relative financial position of a household. We also want to know about the underlying portfolio composition: is their wealth easy to access (liquid) or is it tied up in housing? What type of debts do they have? Take, for example, two households with the same net worth of $25,000. Household A owns a home valued at $100,000 and owes a mortgage of $75,000 on that home. Household B has $5,000 in a checking account; $15,000 in a retirement account; and owes $5,000 on a car that they could sell for $10,000. While A and B technically have the same net worth, A’s net worth is  more vulnerable to external market changes as it is entirely tied to the housing market, and they are less able than household B to tap into wealth in the face of unexpected financial emergencies such as job loss, medical crisis, or home repairs.

Continue reading

Occupation Change, 1920-2010

Every year the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases new data about occupations and employment in America. They estimate how many jobs there are for doctors and actors, how many jobs there are in manufacturing and real estate, how many jobs there are in a multitude of other occupations and industries. And every two years they make projections for the future, giving us an idea of which occupations will be growing and adding more jobs and which will be shrinking and perhaps even disappearing. Despite all the work that goes into these estimates and projections, from year to year the data look pretty much the same. Some occupations outpace their neighbors in growth, but rarely by much; the 7th largest occupation last year might be the sixth largest this year, but we rarely see dramatic yearly changes. So why is all this work important?

Continue reading

Humanization vs. invasion of privacy

As a professional demographer, and one who studies and collects data on people for a living, one of the issues I frequently get asked about is privacy.  The topic has always been important in my work for the Weldon Cooper Center and it also has been front and center for the U.S. Census Bureau in recent years.  For example, in 2010 the Republican National Committee passed an official resolution stating that many of the Bureau’s activities are “overreaching,” “intimidating,” and “dangerous” in regards to privacy, particularly for its American Community Survey (ACS).

While I share some of the RNC’s concerns about the mandatory nature of the ACS (although the Census Bureau very rarely enforces any sort of penalty for not answering), my primary concerns over privacy lie elsewhere.  The mountain of new data gathered by private corporations on what we eat, what we read, where we travel, what we buy, and how we surf the internet is bought, sold, and traded with impunity, often without us knowing about it.  The U.S. Census Bureau is a bastion of privacy and protection compared to what the burgeoning data mining and micro-targeting industries do on a daily basis.

Continue reading