Human Capital: 20th Century Time Use and Jelly Beans

Aug 10, 2013    •    356 Views    •    EST. TIME TO READ: 2 minutes

If you live close to the average of 79 years, using 28,835 jelly beans to represent each day, here is how you might spend your life:

In a 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that future generations would have more leisure time. And yes, looking at per capita hours worked annually during the 20th century, the total has been estimated to have fallen from 1600 to 1000 (see below). But did we spend our newfound time on leisure?


According to an NBER paper, 70% of the drop in work hours has shifted to time in school. (The other 30% primarily represents “home production” that, surprisingly, the study says has not decreased since 1900.–more on that in another post.) As a result, our leisure time has remained rather constant.

Just looking at high school enrollment, you can see that the numbers skyrocket. In 1900 the percent of children aged 14-17 enrolled in high school was 10% while for 2003, 95%. School days also popped from 100 annually to 160. We could say that comparing 1900 and 2003, the one activity that would require significantly more jelly beans is education.

Here are some graphs from, “A Century of Work and Leisure ” that say it all:

We are working less:

Human Capital from A Century of Work and Leisure

And we are attending school more:

Human Capital and Education Hours from A Century of Work and Leisure

Human Capital School Attendance from A Century of Work and Leisure

John Maynard Keynes might have been wrong when he predicted more leisure time. However, he also said productivity would grow. And there, he was right.

Sources and resources: Readable and interesting, the NBER paper, “A Century of Work and Leisure,” is an ideal complement to the American Time Use Survey (ATUs) from BLS. Econlife discussed the June ATUS survey here.

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