American Time Use Survey

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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General Information
  1. What is a time-use survey?
  2. When did the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) begin?
  3. Who conducts the ATUS?
  4. Who is asked to respond to the ATUS?
  5. I was asked to participate in the ATUS. Where can I find more information about participating in the survey?
  6. Who uses the information from the ATUS?
  7. How often are ATUS microdata published?
Collection of ATUS Data
  1. How are the data collected?
  2. Are households that do not have a telephone and those with unlisted telephone numbers eligible to participate in ATUS?
  3. Do respondents receive an advance diary?
  4. How many times are respondents interviewed?
  5. How are daily activities classified into time-use categories?
ATUS Data and Estimates
  1. What kinds of ATUS time-use estimates are available?
  2. Do ATUS staff members produce time-use estimates upon request?
  3. May I use ATUS data to develop my own tabulations?
  4. Which variables should I use when developing my own tabulations?
Eldercare
  1. What is eldercare?
  2. What is a condition related to aging?
  3. What is an eldercare provider?
  4. Why does the BLS collect data on eldercare? Why now and not earlier?
Other Time-Use Surveys
  1. Are time-use data collected in other countries?
  2. Do any other groups collect time-use information in the United States?
  3. Are calculated estimates of Americans' time use available for years prior to 2003?
  4. How can I obtain microdata from previous U.S. time-use surveys to do my own calculations?

I. General Information

What is a time-use survey?

Time-use surveys measure the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as work, childcare, housework, watching television, volunteering, and socializing.

When did the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) begin?

Data collection began in January 2003, and the first estimates were published on September 14, 2004.

Who conducts the ATUS?

ATUS is sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau collects and processes the data.

Who is asked to respond to the ATUS?

Households that have completed their final (8th) month of the Current Population Survey are eligible for the ATUS. From this eligible group, households are selected that represent a range of demographic characteristics. Then, one person age 15 or over is randomly chosen from the household to answer questions about his or her time use. This person is interviewed for the ATUS 2-5 months after his or her household's final CPS interview.

I was asked to participate in the ATUS. Where can I find more information about participating in the survey?

The ATUS Respondent's Web site provides additional information for those selected to participate in the ATUS.

Who uses the information from the ATUS?

Researchers, journalists, educators, sociologists, economists, government lawmakers, lawyers, and individuals are all users of time-use information. The survey produces nationally-representative estimates of the U.S. population's time use by labor force status, demographic characteristics, and other factors. Analysts are able to compare Americans' time use with similar data from almost fifty other countries that have, or soon will have, time-use surveys. To find out more about how time-use data can be used, go to the ATUS Overview.

How often are ATUS microdata published?

ATUS microdata files are published annually.

II. Collection of ATUS Data

How are the data collected?

The data are collected through telephone interviews. Census Bureau interviewers use Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing, a system that automatically advances interviewers to the next question based on a respondent's answers to previous questions.

Are households that do not have a telephone and those with unlisted telephone numbers eligible to participate in ATUS?

Households without telephones and those that did not provide a telephone number in the CPS can be selected for the ATUS sample. In a letter about the survey, BLS asks respondents in these households to call a toll-free number to complete the interview.

Do respondents receive an advance diary?

Respondents do not receive a diary on which to record activities prior to the telephone interview. (When developing the survey, an early test showed no improvement in data quality, as well as greater respondent burden, when respondents used a paper diary aid.) Instead, they receive a letter and pamphlet explaining the purpose of the ATUS and notifying them of the day they will be called.

How many times are respondents interviewed?

Respondents are interviewed only once.

How are daily activities classified into time-use categories?

Trained coders use software that displays all of a respondent's daily activities as recorded by the interviewer. Coders assign a code from the ATUS classification system to each activity. The classification system contains 17 major time-use categories, each containing two additional levels of detail. These 17 coding categories are recombined into more relevant analytical categories for publication. To find out more about the ATUS coding categories, see the ATUS Coding Lexicons.

III. ATUS Data and Estimates

What kinds of ATUS time-use estimates are available?

Tables showing time-use estimates for major activity categories, selected detailed activities, and selected demographic and labor force characteristics are available on the ATUS Web site under the headings News Releases, Charts and Tables. In addition, a limited number of unpublished tables are available from the ATUS staff. These tables include time-use estimates by age, race, ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, marital status, the presence and age of household children, and other detail. For more information about these unpublished tables, contact ATUS staff. To request notification of the release of new data files, contact ATUS staff.

Do ATUS staff members produce time-use estimates upon request?

ATUS staff members are unable to produce tabulations upon special request.

May I use ATUS data to develop my own tabulations?

Yes, microdata files (and associated codebooks) are available for downloading. Links to the microdata are available on the ATUS home page under the heading Data Files. To request notification of the release of new microdata files, contact ATUS staff.

Which variables should I use when developing my own tabulations?

Many variables appear on the ATUS microdata files. For a list of variables that are frequently used to tabulate the ATUS microdata, see the ATUS documentation Frequently Used Variables (PDF).

IV. Eldercare

What is eldercare?

Eldercare is providing unpaid care or assistance to an individual who needed help because of a condition related to aging. This care can be provided in the recipient's home, the provider's home, or a care facility, such as in a nursing home. Eldercare can involve a range of care activities, such as assisting with grooming and feeding, preparing meals, arranging medical care, and providing transportation. Eldercare can also involve providing companionship or being available to assist when help is needed, and thus can be associated with nearly any activity. Eldercare estimates are derived by summing the durations of activities during which respondents provided care or assistance for an adult who needed help because of a condition related to aging.

What is a condition related to aging?

A condition related to aging is an ongoing ailment or physical or emotional limitation that typically affects older people, such as becoming more frail; having difficulty seeing, hearing, or physically moving; becoming more forgetful; tiring more quickly; or specific medical ailments that are more common among older adults. It also refers to existing conditions that become progressively worse as one ages.

What is an eldercare provider?

An eldercare provider is someone who provided eldercare more than one time in the 3 to 4 months prior to the interview day. This time frame varies slightly by respondent because the question asks about care provided between the first day of a given reference month and the interview day.

Why does the BLS collect data on eldercare? Why now and not earlier?

Prior to 2011, the ATUS did not collect data on time spent providing eldercare. Recognizing the need for quality eldercare data, BLS had made many efforts over the years to develop questions to collect this information. In 2005, BLS hosted a subject matter expert panel to refine the concept of eldercare, to determine the most appropriate method for collecting the data within the ATUS design, and to obtain feedback on the kinds of measures that would best inform the eldercare research and policy communities. The development process over the years also included a review of existing eldercare measures, focus groups with caregivers, reviews of draft questionnaires by subject matter experts and survey methods experts, internal testing and refinement of the questions, and cognitive testing of the questions.

Questions on eldercare were introduced to the ATUS in January 2011. The ATUS eldercare questions were designed specifically to identify eldercare providers and to measure the time they spent providing eldercare. Additional information, such as the relationship between the care provider and care recipient, the age of the care recipient, and the types of care activities that care providers do also are collected. The eldercare questions replaced the questions on trips away from home.

V. Other Time-Use Surveys

Are time-use data collected in other countries?

Time-use data are, or soon will be, collected in approximately fifty other countries, including Germany, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The ATUS coding system was designed to ensure that time-use information in the United States could be compared, at broad levels, with information from other countries. To learn more about surveys in other countries, go to Related Links.

Do any other groups collect time-use information in the United States?

The Universities of Michigan and Maryland have conducted time-use surveys periodically since 1965. The ATUS is the first federally-administered, continuous survey on time use in the United States.

Are calculated estimates of Americans' time use available for years prior to 2003?

Several organizations conducted time-use surveys in the United States before the ATUS began in 2003. Because of differences in methodology between these studies and ATUS, estimates produced using these studies are not directly comparable to ATUS estimates. Early efforts in the United States included USDA-sponsored studies during the 1920s and early 1930s; these studies collected time diaries from farm housewives. The University of Michigan conducted time-use studies in 1965, 1975-76, 1981, and 1985. The 1965 study's sample was intentionally drawn from a population of urban, mostly employed individuals. The University of Maryland conducted time-use studies in 1992-94, 1998, and 2001. ATUS staff can provide a list of documents containing historical time-use estimates upon request.

How can I obtain microdata from previous U.S. time-use surveys to do my own calculations?

The University of Maryland maintains a listing of time-use surveys previously done in the United States.

Additionally, the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS) maintained by the Centre for Time Use Research (CTUR) at the University of Oxford in the UK, maintains a harmonized file containing data from the 1965-66, 1975-76, 1985, 1992-95, and 1998-2001 time-use studies done in the U.S. This file includes ATUS microdata that have been adjusted to allow comparisons between the earlier surveys from the United States as well as from other countries. Researchers can apply to the Centre for Time Use Research to access the MTUS data files. Access is free of charge.

Last Modified Date: June 18, 2014

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