How the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way people spent time

Americans worked less last year, but that was because mass layoffs in the spring meant fewer people were working at all.
Americans worked less last year, but that was because mass layoffs in the spring meant fewer people were working at all.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Last year was the year of sourdough baking and jigsaw puzzles - and of trying to work with a toddler screaming in the same room.

It was the year of commuting from the bedroom to the living room for those able to work from home, and of harrowing, masked bus rides for many of those who had to go to work in person. It was a year of profound loneliness for those trapped in nursing homes, and of too much togetherness for those quarantining in too-small apartments.

It was a year, in other words, when the pandemic changed life for everyone, but in different ways.

The American Time Use Survey every year asks thousands of people to track every minute of a single day. Most years, the data reflects the ways in which changes in technology, society and the economy subtly shift how we spend our days. For 2020, it reflected the sudden rupture of daily life.

The Labor Department, which oversees the survey, paused data collection in mid-March last year because of the coronavirus outbreak, and did not resume it until mid-May.

That means the year's data is missing the most intense period of lockdowns and business closings last year. But it offers a glimpse of how we adapted to a different way of living as the pandemic dragged on, when we were left to figure out how to shop, work, entertain ourselves and connect with others in brand-new and perhaps enduring ways. And it shows how those adaptations and disruptions varied across groups.

Beyond work and school

People last year spent far less waking time - 1 ½ hours less, on average - with people outside their own household. For people who did not live with anyone else, in particular, that meant a lot of time by themselves - more than 20 hours a day either asleep or alone, on average.

Seniors spent the most time alone. But it was young people, especially teenagers, who saw the biggest shift in their social lives. Teenagers 15 to 19 spent six hours a day alone in 2020, up from 4 ½ in 2019.

With less time out of the house, Americans stared at screens a lot, for Zoom happy hours, Netflix binges or idle social media scrolling.

While others let their hair grow long and worried less about their wardrobes, young people were the only group to spend more time on personal grooming in 2020 - and the only group to spend less time working out.

Parents had a lot to juggle

It's no secret that the pandemic was particularly disruptive to the lives of people with children. But the time-use data shows just how much childcare dominated the lives of parents last year, and how the burden fell unevenly.

With schools closed in much of the country, parents jumped in to help with homework or home-schooling, while spending less time running errands. Overall, parents spent a few minutes more a day on such direct childcare duties, with the biggest burden falling on those with kids who would ordinarily have been in elementary school.

But the big change was in the amount of time parents spent watching their children while juggling other tasks, what Labor Department statisticians call "secondary childcare".

Parents of elementary school-age children spent six hours a day on secondary childcare in 2020, an hour and 20 minutes more than in 2019. Women bore the brunt of the burden, spending seven hours a day on secondary childcare (versus fewer than five hours for men), and eight hours on childcare overall.

Parents spent more time doing just about everything while keeping an eye on the kids in 2020 - more time cooking, more time cleaning and, in particular, more time working. Women spent 48 more minutes a day working while responsible for children in 2020, a figure that understates the true increase for many women because the average includes women who were not working at all.

Childcare increased for mothers across the board last year. But single mums were hit especially hard. Unmarried women with elementary school-age children at home spent nearly three extra hours a day on childcare; the time unmarried men spent on childcare hardly changed.

The picture looked very different in married households, where men and women saw roughly equal increases in childcare (although women still shouldered a greater burden in total).

Time spent working

Americans worked less last year, but that was because mass layoffs in the spring meant fewer people were working at all. Among those who kept their jobs, there was little change in the amount of time they worked in a given day - about 7½ hours in 2020, the same as in 2019.

Of course, the nature of work changed drastically. In 2019, one in seven people worked primarily from home on a given day. In 2020, that figure rose to one in three. (The share was almost certainly even higher in the spring, when data was not collected.)

Overall, the average time spent at the office or job site fell more than 1½ hours among employed workers, while the amount of time spent working from home rose about the same amount.

The changes weren't evenly distributed. Hispanic workers were likelier to lose their jobs than members of other racial or ethnic groups, while black workers were more likely to be in jobs that required them to keep going to work in person. White and Asian workers were far more likely than other groups to be able to work from home.

The educational divide is just as stark. Americans with higher levels of education were both more likely to keep their jobs and more likely to be able to work from home than those with less formal education. People with graduate or professional degrees actually spent more time, on average, working from home last year than working from the office.

Those with a high school diploma or less, meanwhile, saw little increase in their time spent working from home, reflecting the large share of them who were considered "essential workers" and had to show up for work in person in the midst of a pandemic.