ABS data reveals we’re more time poor than ever. Here’s why

From working longer hours to minding our kids more, ABS data reveals how we use our time – and which generation is under the most time stress.

Feel like you’re busier than ever? As it turns out, you probably are.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data reveals Aussies are juggling more now than 30 years ago, with working parents bearing the brunt of the load.

The ABS Time Use survey measures how Australians spend their time, from sleeping and eating to socialising and exercising.

Not only are we spending more time every day on necessary activities – such as working (up 4.5 hours), studying (up 3.5 hours), housework (up 0.7 hours) and childminding (up 2.3 hours) – the statistics reveal we are also doing more socialising (up 20 minutes) and exercise (up 1 hour), and we are more engaged with our kids than we were 30 years ago.

Time poverty and stress

With such packed schedules, it is no wonder nearly half of people aged 35 to 44 feel rushed or pressed for time.

University of Melbourne sociology and social policy professor Lyn Craig says increasing demands on our time are leading to higher stress levels, especially among working parents.

“Households with young children are highly time-pressured,” Prof Craig says.

According to the latest ABS data, women with young children under 15 years old are the most time poor, with 57 per cent reporting they always feel rushed.

Of those, women working full time are also 12 per cent more likely than men to report feeling time stress, with 71 per cent rarely – or never – having free time, compared to 62.8 per cent of working men.

“Even in full-time working couples, men’s hours are usually longer than women’s, so they’re coming home to a household in which their partner has already arrived home and the kids are there,” Prof Craig notes.

Tables are turning, but women still carry more of the domestic load

While women are still taking on more of the household responsibility than men, the latest data shows the tide is shifting.

ABS statistics reveal men are spending 2.4 hours a day on domestic activities.

This includes 21 minutes more on housework and 27 minutes more on cooking and cleaning than they did in 1992.

While still less than women, this highlights a 60 per cent increase in men’s domestic participation rate, with men spending on average 61 minutes more a day on domestic activities.

Overall, however, women are still responsible for nearly 30 per cent more of the domestic load, spending an average of 3 hours per day on household activities – such as cooking, cleaning and laundry.

As more women return to the workforce, men are increasingly taking on household maintenance roles, but Prof Craig says the division of labour still falls heavily to women.

“The convergence in paid and unpaid work was almost entirely women taking on paid work and dropping housework,” she says.

“But the balance of men doing more in the home hasn’t really happened and I’ve come to think that it’s largely because men’s work hasn’t really changed.”

Essentially, Prof Craig says, what is expected is for women to go back into the workforce while still keeping most of the responsibility for care.

“So that’s just more workload on them,” she adds.

We are more engaged with our kids

Gone are the days when children would be seen but not heard, and family time was limited to weekends.

Today, parents are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before, actively participating in their daily routines and fostering stronger emotional bonds.

The shift is remarkable considering the increased work demands on both mothers and fathers.

While traditionally women assumed the role of primary caregiver, the rate of women working full time increased from 27 per cent in 1992 to 56 per cent in 2022.

But despite more parents working, the statistics reveal we are more involved with our kids than we were in decades past.

So what is driving this change?

Time cost of children

While fewer people are having children, Prof Craig explains that for those who do, “the time cost of children is higher than it was.”

According to the most recent ABS data, parents today spend more time playing (up 1.2 hours), teaching (up 49 minutes) and caring for children (up 53 minutes), with a much more even split between males and females than 30 years ago.

“(The rate of) childminding is going up around the world,” Prof Craig says.

“Both men and women are doing more.”

Cost of child care

Prof Craig says the cost of child care in Australia is so expensive that most families don’t use it five days a week.

“Child care doesn’t really substitute for all that much of the time parents’ spend caring for their children,” she says.

“It gets shifted to the end of the day and into the weekends and women often just share their leisure with their children.”

Active supervision

Another factor driving this change, Prof Craig says, is that kids today require more supervision.

“They don’t run free like they used to, they don’t walk to school on their own – they need to be supervised,” she says.

Busier kids’ schedules

Children’s time is also becoming more scheduled, putting additional pressure on already time-poor parents.

“In a lot of families, children are doing more extracurricular and enrichment activities that also often require parental attendance,” Prof Craig explains.

We are more social

Interestingly, despite the busier schedules, Australians are also finding more time to socialise.

The ABS data indicates an increase in social activities by 20 minutes per day.

This includes an uptick in time spent eating out, which has increased by 1.2 hours compared to 30 years ago.

This suggests that modern Australians value maintaining social connections and leisure activities, even amid their packed daily routines.

Additionally, the time spent on exercise has also risen by an hour, highlighting a growing emphasis on health and social interaction through physical activities.

This increase in social activities reflects a shift towards a more balanced lifestyle, where social wellbeing is prioritised alongside professional and domestic responsibilities.

We are more switched on – literally

One key factor in the shift of how we use our time is the digital revolution.

Technology has drastically changed the way we work, study, socialise and entertain ourselves.

Australians now spend 55 per cent more time per day watching TV and video (3 hours) than we did in 1998, with men watching 20 minutes more than women.

We also spend more time playing digital games (2.2 hours); listening to music, radio or podcasts (55 minutes); and more than an hour on our devices (1 hour).

Digital technology has also facilitated the rise of social media, which has transformed social interactions.

We spend significant time on social platforms including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, which allow us to maintain social connections and stay informed but can also contribute to feelings of time pressure and information overload.

With the advent of smartphones and devices, remote work, and online education, Australians are more digitally connected than ever before.

This connectivity allows for greater multitasking but also blurs the lines between work and personal life, which Prof Craig notes may also contribute to feelings of time pressure.

The impacts of Covid-19

The recent pandemic significantly reshaped how Australians spent their time, primarily due to lockdowns and the shift to remote work, with the elimination of daily commutes providing substantial relief from time pressure, allowing more time for other activities.

“One of the major things that people weren’t doing anymore was travelling to and from work and that mounts up to a lot of committed time in your day,” Prof Craig notes.

Despite both men and women reporting increased housework and childcare responsibilities during this period, many found themselves less time-stressed due to the removal of rigid routines imposed by commuting and traditional office hours.

“When you remove having to get children up and out of the house and dropped off at child care or school then having to get to work,and then doing the opposite at the other end of the day, the time pressure of that is a major part of it,” Prof Craig explains.

“In cities like Sydney or Melbourne, you could be gaining an hour (or more) each direction so that would alleviate some of that time pressure.”

Despite these challenges, the trends point to a society in flux, with Australians continually rebalancing their time between work, family and leisure activities.

However, Prof Craig emphasises the need to consider the unique and challenging circumstances during data collection, such as the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns and the shift to online surveys, which could have affected the accuracy and representativeness of the data.

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Written by Tianna Nadalin.