Meet the Oxford researcher whose work is — literally — on time
'There are strong gender and age roles that apply across the developed world'

Meet the Oxford researcher whose work is — literally — on time

Recently honored by the British government, Prof. Jonathan Gershuny scrutinizes journals documenting people's everyday activities for global truths

Prof. Jonathan Gershuny in his north London home office. (Jenni Frazer/Times of Israel)
Prof. Jonathan Gershuny in his north London home office. (Jenni Frazer/Times of Israel)

LONDON — To spend even a short time in Prof. Jonathan Gershuny’s company is to be treated to a whirlwind university lecture tailored especially for an audience of one. He is by turns funny, informative, and endlessly interesting.

The professor, who was recognized by the British government last month for his academic contributions, is the director of Oxford’s Center for Time Use Research. This means, he explains, that he and his team look at minutely detailed “diaries” to find out what people are doing on a day-to-day basis.

From such diaries public policy can be drawn, whether in looking at pay disparity between the genders or how much money should be spent nationally on culture. And since Gershuny began his work in the late 1970s, he has acquired accounts of more than 800,000 days, collected from 25 countries, spanning from 1961 to 2013.

We meet in the professor’s computer-strewn workroom in his north London home. The office bookshelves heave with books on everything from Spielberg to the Talmud, and several of his trademark Panama hats appear on tabletops — in addition to the one Gershuny wears on his head.

Somewhat improbably, he says, he was inspired by science fiction, specifically the work of Isaac Asimov, whose “Foundation Trilogy” he devoured when still a teenager.

‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do, be an Asimov hero. I’m going to run a research institute that explains how the world actually works’

“He invents the science of psychohistory and the galaxy is saved by the intervention of this hero social scientist,” Gershuny says. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do, be an Asimov hero. I’m going to run a research institute that explains how the world actually works.’”

Though he laughs at his 16-year-old self, Gershuny has in fact come very close to doing just that. He studied economics and politics at Loughborough, Strathclyde and Sussex universities, and once at Sussex he joined a social science research unit.

Early predictions

Gershuny says that in the early 1970s, there was “a great moral panic” about the limits to economic growth.

“A group of researchers from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] had constructed a model which said that by 1999, we were going to have run out of oil and drowned in our own effluent. It was going to be the end of the world as we know it,” Gershuny says. “But the group that I joined at Sussex said, no, it’ll be fine.”

The Sussex social scientists said the only thing wrong with the MIT model was that there was no economics in it. It may have been true that oil was running out, but that was at 1970s prices. If the price of oil went up there would be an increase in reserves — which is in fact what happened.

‘Economics is simply the edge of daily life’

“I had a corner of this work, social forecasting,” says Gershuny. “I had an idea that all economic activity comes from the consumption of people living their daily lives. Economics is simply the edge of daily life.”

Gershuny realized that the services which consumers were buying — transport, entertainment, eating out — were changing as people became richer.

“And what was happening was that whole sections of the economy were disappearing — that is, for example, transportation was shrinking as more people bought cars, laundromats closed because people were buying washing machines — and no one was measuring the new economy,” he says.

Prof. Jonathan Gershuny pointing out the facts and figures. (Jenni Frazer/Times of Israel)
Prof. Jonathan Gershuny pointing out the facts and figures. (Jenni Frazer/Times of Israel)

He understood that the economy was changing, but what was not being measured was the way in which people chose to spend their money.

“We needed to measure not just the work in the factories, but the work at home, and that’s what got me collecting these large scale diary surveys, to see how consumption functioned within the home,” says Gershuny.

On the books

One of the first such surveys was carried out by the BBC. Its “Viewer and Listener Availability” survey first began in 1938 as a way of establishing what its audience was doing during the day in order to target its programs.

Gershuny heard that the original diaries from the BBC’s 1961 Viewer and Listener survey still existed in the basement of one of its central London broadcasting outposts, Langham House — now a luxury hotel.

The Langham basement in the 1970s functioned as a BBC staff club and was, says Gershuny, an utter mess.

“But we found, in tea chests and egg boxes, the original diaries of 3,500 people from 1961. It was very exciting,” he says.

Mindful that the BBC would only throw the diaries out, a cool Gershuny hired a white van and drove it up to the door of the Langham.

‘We found, in tea chests and egg boxes, the original diaries of 3,500 people from 1961’

“I said to the doorman, I have to move some stuff, could you give me a hand?” says Gershuny.

And thus the 1961 survey was spirited off to Sussex University.

Later, the BBC gave him the original diaries of its 1975 survey, which enabled him to plot the difference in how people spent their days. Working with an American academic, John Robinson, Gershuny became aware that such surveys were taking place in other countries and began to accumulate material.

“Now I have about 75 surveys from about 25 countries. There is a single one from Israel, completed in 1990; there is supposed to be another one done in Israel in 1970, but I’m still looking for that.”

International time

What makes it possible to do this large-scale research, Gershuny says, “is that all of these surveys do precisely the same thing. They ask: ‘You woke up at such and such a time, what did you do next, were you doing anything else at the same time, who was with you, where were you?’ And then there are extra questions, such as, ‘Who are you, how old are you, what job do you do?’ And more recently, the surveys ask, ‘How are you enjoying this part of your life, how does it compare with other parts of your life, how well do you feel?’”

All the answers allow Gershuny and his team to plot graphs of people’s daily lives — and make comparisons from country to country, from decade to decade, or between men and women. He notes that looking at the two most developed countries with the most difference between them — America and Poland — American women aged 30-40 and in employment have more in common with their counterparts in Poland, than do Polish women aged 30-40 with their Polish male counterparts.

‘There are strong gender and age roles that apply across the developed world’

In other words, “the similarities are much stronger between demographic groups in different countries than between [other] demographic groups in the same country.” And this is because, Gershuny says, “there are strong gender and age roles that apply across the developed world.”

How does that apply to cultural expectations in different countries? It turns out, says Gershuny, that the responses — and thus the lifestyles — are more similar in the Anglophone countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia, together with the Nordic countries, than in central European countries.

He’s also keen to say how he defines “work” for the purpose of analyzing the surveys.

Men and women do similar amounts of work

“Work is anything you can pay someone else to do without losing the point of it,” he says. “So, for example, I can pay someone to wash a shirt for me, but I can’t pay them to go to a concert for me. Anything I could pay someone else to do — irrespective of whether I do so or not — that’s work.”

And the fascinating thing that Gershuny has established is that, according to that definition, men and women do similar amounts of work.

Bed time

He darts onto another area of his research — evidently a bugbear with him — about sleep patterns. Most public declarations about how much sleep people need — or get — are “absolute rubbish,” Gershuny says, adding that such statements most often come from those involved in sleep medicine.

“They always ask the wrong questions,” he says. “They will say to people who are their patients, are you sleeping less than you used to? And the answers will be misleading because it might be for all kinds of different reasons, age, health, weight, other people in the house, relationships, all sorts of things.”

When asked if the question should be simply, “how much sleep do you get at night?” Gershuny bobs and weaves.

“People don’t know. That’s why we ask them to keep diaries. Or, again, when we look at work. Twenty years ago, the more important a person was, the more they exaggerated how much work they did. That was what I called ‘work as a badge of honor,’” he says.

That’s not the case today. In another piece of research, he and his academic colleague John Robinson looked at the answers of lawyers and legal secretaries and doctors and nurses in north America. The answers were revealing.

‘Lawyers would say they worked 55 hours a week, but we discovered they actually worked 45 hours a week’

“Lawyers would say they worked 55 hours a week,” says Gershuny, “but if we looked at random samples of their days, we discovered they actually worked 45 hours a week. And when you talked to the legal secretaries, they said they worked 43 hours a week — but they actually worked 46 hours a week, because the bosses so often said, ‘Could you just finish this for me?’”

Nevertheless, Gershuny maintains it is hard for people to lie outright when they fill in the diaries, because first they have to lie about what they were doing, and then they have to think of something else to put in its place. And one of his latest surveys features not just the diary, but cameras, too — so lying becomes “difficult.”

Rolling with the times

We talk about old and new technologies — one of the current questions in Gershuny’s surveys relates to how much time people spend looking at screens. Gershuny maintains, however, that the technology employed doesn’t significantly alter the end result of the work.

‘In 1866 it was possible to get the message across the Atlantic that Chicago had burned to the ground — again’

“The purposes of the technology are largely unchanged. After all, you could say things were primitive in the 19th century. But in 1866 it was possible to get the message across the Atlantic that Chicago had burned to the ground — again — and shares in American meatpackers, on the London Stock Exchange, collapsed. So actually, much less change than you might think,” he says.

From the Chicago fire, we suddenly find ourselves talking about hothousing children, because Gershuny wants to show me data relating to UK child care in the 1960s and today.

One might expect the amount of time devoted to child care to go down, because families are smaller than they were than 50 years ago.

But actually, Gershuny says, with smaller families parents are more protective of the children, “and there has developed a kind of arms race in child development, can he or she get into the best school or university, have the best sports or ballet tuition.”

Illustrative: High school students in a classroom in Ma'aleh Adumim, south of Jerusalem, on May 20, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: High school students in a classroom in Ma’aleh Adumim, south of Jerusalem, on May 20, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Gershuny says the use of data he extrapolates from the surveys affects public policy in a number of ways.

“We can estimate the connection between national product and national well-being. We’ve been working with the Office of National Statistics [ONS] in the UK to extend the data of GNP [Gross National Product] to make them more appropriate and more relevant to understanding how well off the country is.”

One way of doing that is to look at the value of unpaid consumption — “eating, watching, listening, sleeping and relaxing. We look for more sophisticated alternatives to measuring national well-being — whether our society is happy,” Gershuny says.

Using the same data, the Gershuny team has been able to provide information to medics in the US to devise public health policy, whether it is to do with exercise or comparing on a country by country basis susceptibility to heart disease.

Good times

The one thing that is obvious from Gershuny’s research is that he is having the best time doing it — “yes, it is enormous fun.” At this, it seems imperative to know whether he has ever devised a survey applicable solely to the Jewish community.

“Well, there is the chulent factor,” he laughs. “We [Jews] have certain dietary characteristics that have certain consequences for us. We also have certain daily and weekly patterns of behavior that have certain consequences. Now, what are the applications of these patterns to public health? It may actually be that walking to shul and coming back for a chulent is extremely healthy. Well, it’s less unhealthy than not walking to shul and back and then having a chulent.”

A traditional meat cholent that is often served in Israeli hotels and restaurants on the Jewish Sabbath (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)
Illustrative: Chulent, a Shabbat morning staple made from meat, beans, barley and potatoes cooked overnight. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)

Of course, Gershuny agrees, much depends on the chulent.

More seriously, he advises that it is important to treat the figures critically and with respect.

“For example, in my Israeli data, it looks as though Israelis don’t work very hard. But of course the figures don’t take account of reserve duty and the attitude of the military towards keeping a diary. So when Israelis fill in their diaries, they mark reserve duty as ‘leave days’ — and it looks as though Israeli men and women don’t work very long hours. You have to treat the figures carefully and ask what are the particular characteristics of the universe that you are sampling from.”

Upon a journalist taking her leave, the professor returns to poring over graphs and wondering aloud about his latest problem — why Portugal does not fit the patterns of other countries where the diary surveys are carried out. It is possible, of course, that if Gershuny himself were to fill in a daily diary, all the results would be skewed. But that, of course, is another conversation.

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