Sociologist spends waking hours observing how we pass the days

AS TIME GOES BY

October 12, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

At 3:30 p.m., America's master clock-watcher, John P. Robinson, glances at the time and notes he is supposed to be at a 3 o'clock meeting. This is mentioned not as a preamble to rushing out, but more as a point of information. No problem, the meeting could wait, or be postponed, or flex in some way.

Mr. Robinson, who is to American time what Masters & Johnson are to American sex, has found during 30 years of observation a certain fluid quality to time. As director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, he has seen the minutes flow: away from work toward leisure, and most of that leisure toward television, the colossal time sponge.

Although in increasingly extensive surveys done by the project every 10 years since 1965, Americans say they have more free time, yet feel ever more rushed. In the universe of time, as in most everywhere else, a gap often lies between perception and reality, Mr. Robinson finds.

It might seem that having a dishwasher would reduce the time spent washing dishes, but Mr. Robinson's studies do not show this. Neither does the microwave oven appear to have significantly reduced the amount of time spent preparing meals. The car gets us where we're going faster, but we have a tendency to move farther from work, thereby spending more time commuting. Wash-and-wear clothing is easier to launder, but we wash clothes more often than we used to, thus the total time spent on the chore has not changed so much.

All of which brings to mind one of Mr. Robinson's favorite maxims, Parkinson's Law, which holds that work expands or contracts to fill the time available.

"There is an elasticity to time," says Mr. Robinson, who demonstrates the point by not showing up for an 11 a.m. appointment with a reporter at his office in College Park. Samuel Beckett would have enjoyed the scene: waiting outside the office of America's time guru, who never appears.

Hours later, Mr. Robinson telephones to apologize. "I thought it was noon," he says.

At the appointed time for the rescheduled interview the door is ajar, so that one sees the sociology professor seated amid stacks of paper, boxes of paper, a litter of books.

"I've tried to get more organized, but it's a struggle," he says. He quickly rises from his chair, hustles from the office and shuts the door, moving to a conference room down the hall.

He is slim, gray and attired in a fashion suggesting little time spent shopping. Mr. Robinson says his favorite leisure activity is listening to live music, mostly jazz and classical.

Commuting is a waste

He lives in College Park, about two miles from campus, because he considers commuting "a total waste" of time. He declines to lecture about the evils of TV-watching, but says he curbs himself to 10 or 12 hours a week: Letterman, Leno, news shows and some public television.

There is too much else to do. Mr. Robinson teaches two courses a week, is working on his 10th book, is a contributing editor of American Demographics magazine and, of course, oversees the Americans' Use of Time Project, which he started at the University of Michigan and brought with him to Maryland in 1980.

Asked to explain this fascination with time, Mr. Robinson says: "Because it was there."

Or not there. While studying for his doctorate in mathematical social psychology from the University of Michigan in the early 1960s, he noticed there was no current statistical information on the use of time. In the 1920s, some studies were done on housework and leisure time, but that was all.

"It was just something that had been overlooked. . . . My main background is as a statistician. I was interested in the intersection of mathematics, statistics and behavior."

And in what time use says about us as a culture. As Mr. Robinson observes, there's always been plenty of information on how we spend money, not so much on how we spend time, an even more limited resource.

Diane Crispell, executive editor of American Demographics, says Robinson is still the only source of information on how Americans use their time 24 hours a day. A group affiliated with Gallup surveys leisure time, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks work time.

What's important

"The value of it," says Ms. Crispell, "is the trend, how people are distributing their days. You can find out what's important to people."

Television, by that measure, is very important. More important than anything Americans do for which they are not paid.

"The question that people were asking in the 1960s was, 'What would people do if we had more free time?' " says Mr. Robinson. "It happened. They spent more time watching television."

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