How Americans spent their time in lockdown: Alone, working and helping kids

How Americans spent their time in lockdown: Alone, working and helping kids
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The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns that ground much of the nation to a halt spurred a new normal for many Americans, forcing them to work from home and educate their children.

New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the extent to which daily lives were disrupted as the pandemic brought about a shift in daily life for millions of Americans.

The survey itself was also disrupted by lockdowns, suspending data collection at a key point. While the report typically covers a full year, this one covers the final nearly eight months of 2020.

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Here are five takeaways from the Bureau’s data, compared to the same period the previous year:

Working from home spiked

No surprise there: The share of Americans who worked at home nearly doubled last year, from 22 percent to 42 percent. The average employed person worked at home for 5.8 hours on days they worked, compared to 3.6 hours in 2019, a signifiant and unprecedented jump in the Bureau’s data.

Those with higher levels of education, and those employed in higher-wage jobs, were more likely to work from home, reflecting the uneven nature of the pandemic.

Nearly two-thirds of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more worked from home in the last year, while just under one in five workers who attained a high school diploma or less were able to stay home. The biggest work-from-home spikes came in the financial services industry, the professional services industry and in education, as teachers turned from the physical classroom to virtual instruction.

Those who worked in leisure, hospitality and transportation were least able to work from home. Fewer than one in 10 of those workers transitioned from in-person work to at-home work.

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Millions of people shed travel

A whole lot of us adhered to the stay-at-home orders imposed by governors and mayors across the country. The average time Americans spent traveling — whether commuting to work or driving to a store — dropped by 26 minutes a day, from 1.2 hours to 47 minutes.

Just two-thirds of Americans spent any time at all traveling on a given day, down from 84 percent the year before. And those who did venture out did so less, down from 1.5 hours on average to 1.2 hours.

Those travel numbers dropped, too, because so many children’s activities were curtailed. The BLS counts driving kids to school or sports as time spent providing childcare, and the share of adults living in households with children who provided childcare dropped from 61 percent to 53 percent.

That’s not a reflection of anyone ignoring their kids during lockdown, it’s a sign that fewer people had to take their kids out of the house. The decline came almost entirely from adults who participated in “other childcare,” a category that includes parental taxi services.

Another sign of a suddenly sedentary lifestyle: Just 16 percent of individuals over the age of 15 spent time in a restaurant or bar on a given day last year, down from 27 percent in 2019. The share of those people who spent time at a mall, grocery store or other store dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent.

Parents spent more time teaching kids

In 2019, the average adult who spent time helping their children learn spent an hour doing so. The next year, that figure doubled to 2.2 hours.

Adults who live in a household with at least one child under the age of 13 spent just over 6 hours providing secondary childcare — keeping half an eye on the kids while working or doing chores, say. That was up an hour from the year before, and up even more in households that had at least one child between the ages of 6 and 12.

Women still provide far more childcare than men do — 7.1 hours versus 4.9 hours on a given day in those households with a child under 13 — but both women and men provided about an extra hour of their time to kids last year versus 2019.

Americans watched more TV, and socialized less

All that extra time adults saved by not commuting to work meant they had more time for leisure activities — up an average of 32 minutes per day, to 5.5 hours.

The average person spent an extra 19 minutes watching television, binging 3.1 hours per day. Americans spent an average of 10 more minutes a day on the computer for leisure activities — think games or pleasure reading or Wikipedia rabbit holes — and an extra seven minutes relaxing or thinking. But time spent socializing and communicating in person dropped by 7 minutes a day.

We also spent more time on home care, like housework, cooking or cutting the grass. Men spent an average of 16 more minutes per day on at-home activities, while women spent 11 more minutes on the same chores. Women still do 50 percent more housework than men, 2.4 hours on an average day versus 1.6 hours for men.

Individuals spent far more time alone

Here’s one that might have long-term impacts, especially for those who are in their prime years for social connectivity: The average individual over the age of 15 spent seven hours alone on a given day, up from 6.1 hours.

The increase in alone time was greatest, or worse, depending on one’s point of view, for those over the age of 55, who were alone for eight hours or more on average. Those who lived alone spent an average of 11.3 hours alone, up almost two full hours over 2019.

The most highly educated adults — those who held an advanced degree, and therefore those most likely to be allowed to work from home in high-wage jobs — spent less time alone than anyone else in 2019. That completely changed last year: They spent the most time alone of any educational cohort, almost 7.5 hours on average.

But the time gap may be worse for the younger cohort: Among those aged 15 to 19, the share of waking hours spent alone rose from 30 percent in 2019 to 43 percent in 2020.

“That’s a lot of time alone for teenagers who typically crave social interaction,” said Cheryl Russell, a demographer and author of the Demo Memo Blog. “What affect does all this isolation have on people’s psychology and how much harder it is for them to reintegrate with society?”