Professor discusses leisure, beauty’s impact on success

Henry Clayton Wickham

In his research, economics professor Daniel Hamermesh takes a closer look at the “faceless consumer,” examining what people do with their free time and how beauty impacts economic success. Hamermesh, an expert in labor economics, is widely quoted by major publications like The New York Times and has appeared on national television programs several times. He is the author of “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful,” a book about how looks influence economic success, and his most recent research looks at how people choose to spend their free time when their work hours are cut.

The Daily Texan recently spoke with Hamermesh about his research and how he thinks Americans should budget their work and free time.

The Daily Texan: So, why did you get interested in how people use their free time outside of work?
Daniel Hamermesh:
The way I see it, economists have viewed sex and changing diapers identically in the past. They have concentrated mostly on “work” or “not work,” and yet “not work” consists of a whole bunch of different things.

Our research, which uses data from Korea and Japan, tries to answer the question, “If we didn’t have to work so much, what would we do with our time?” A number of economists think that people would do work-like activities at home, yet this research shows very clearly that when people didn’t have to work so much, they engaged in either leisure or personal care, which means grooming, taking care of themselves, et cetera. I think it’s a very important finding and quite unique in that it had never been looked at before.

DT: Reading about your research, it seemed like there was a wide array of activities that were considered leisure activities. Were there certain leisure activities that people favored doing with their new free time?
In Japan, we found that the main thing done with the free time was watch television. People used about half of their free time, because they weren’t working as much, to watch more TV.

DT: How much of this do you think is culture-specific and how much is generalizable? If workers in the United States got more free time, would they spend it watching TV or would they engage in different leisure activities?
That, I don’t know. One can always argue with a study that is specific to a country and a time that things could be different elsewhere at other times. But, in some ways, I think we’d see more of this, since Americans are working very hard now. My guess is that, if they were freed up, Americans would not be spending more time walking the dog, painting the house or taking care of kids.

DT: Why are people choosing to relax with this new time instead of doing other productive things?
Because it’s fun. We Americans are crazy. We work much harder for pay than any other rich country. Even the Japanese don’t work as hard as we do now. And the Europeans countries… it’s just remarkable how much vacation they get. In America, I think we’d certainly work less given the chance. We simply can’t get our act together to agree to work less. I’d love to see America require companies to give four weeks of vacation to everybody.

DT: Do you think that will happen anytime soon?
Well I’m 68, and I’d be very surprised if it happened in my lifetime. I hope it will happen in yours because I think it would make for a much saner society.

DT: Would cutting time off the work week hurt our productivity as a nation?
Obviously, if we weren’t working as long, we wouldn’t produce as much, but remember, the goal of society is not to produce more things but to be happier, and I’m quite convinced that, if we could agree to do this, we could be happier.

DT: Switching to another area of research: Obviously, some people who are unattractive still become very successful. How do they overcome the disadvantages of their looks?
The same way I’ve overcome the disadvantage of my terrible voice and my inability to sing. You stress those things that you’re good at. Looks aren’t the only thing that matter for success by any means, and a smart person always stresses the things he or she is good at and downplays the things that he or she is bad at.

DT: So, there is this inequity in society … Is that the fault of employers being discriminatory or is it because of our general attitude as a society?
The second. Employers are essentially just agents doing what maximizes their profits, and their profits are maximized because you, me and everybody else wants to buy from, look at and work next to a good looking person. The fault is all of ours. That’s quite clear.