Americans are working fewer hours than in the past and are less likely to hold multiple jobs, but still tend to work more hours per year than is the standard in other nations.
Although economic conditions can exert an influence over a short period of time, the underlying patterns have been in place for decades. Some of the changes are associated with economic progress, with some positive and some negative implications.
A major factor in reducing work time is productivity, and the ability to produce more goods and services with fewer person-hours. The proliferation of machinery and technology has enabled the same work to be done in fewer hours, and capital investments and other innovations have replaced a portion of the labor in most industries. Some of these industries previously required very long hours (such as some types of agriculture) to produce what can now be accomplished with high-tech, GPS-linked tractors, aerial sprayers, and genetically modified crops. Such changes have been going on since the Industrial Revolution, and are the inevitable result of economic advancement.
During the first half of the 1900s, hours worked per week dropped dramatically, from about 60 to about 40. For the past several decades, the average hours worked per week (for all workers) has been below 40, with men tending to work somewhat more hours on average than women. In fact, women are about twice as likely to work part time as men (26.6 percent compared to 13.4 percent in 2010). As women have moved into the workforce in larger numbers, overall average workweeks have fallen. The most recent data (for April 2015) indicate an average workweek of 34.5 hours, with notable variation among industries (from 26.2 hours per week in leisure and hospitality to 44.3 hours per week in mining and logging).
Other explanations are also playing a part in the long-term shift toward shorter workweeks. As a society, attitudes about many aspects of work are changing. Recently, I wrote about the fact that students are increasingly less likely to take traditional summer jobs, with a high percentage indicating they don’t want to (and don’t have to) work. The cost of leisure activities has fallen, and a greater number of people can afford to engage in everything from travel to enjoying a movie or TV show on a high-quality flatscreen in the living room. With a greater variety and attractiveness of leisure activities available, the desire to work additional hours is decreased.
Another shift in the American workweek is a decline in the tendency to hold multiple jobs. According to a report recently released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.8 million people in the United States held more than one job in 2013. In 1994, when the total number of workers was 15.9 million lower, about 7.5 million people had more than one job. Despite growth in total jobs, the number of multiple jobholders has been falling. While some people have a perception that individuals with two or more jobs are at the bottom end of the earnings spectrum working frantically, that is certainly not always the case. Actually, the multiple-jobholding rate increases with education.
There are short-term factors at work in both the number of hours worked and the tendency to take on multiple jobs. During a recession, average workweeks tend to drop as companies cut back production lines in response to slack demand. The business cycle also affects the proportion of people holding multiple jobs, with hard times bumping up the number of individuals making ends meet by putting together several jobs. The effects of the most recent recession can be seen on a graph of the percentage of the workforce holding multiple jobs, but the temporary bump is now gone and we are back on the longstanding trend line.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tracks average annual hours worked for member nations. The United States tends to fall toward the upper end of the range, with 1,788 annual hours actually worked per worker in 2013. Mexico is highest, with 2,237, followed by Greece and Chile, which also exceed 2,000. At the low end of the spectrum are the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and France, which all come in at less than 1,500. There are many potential explanations for this divergence including cultural norms, industrial concentrations, economic health, the quality of social assistance systems, and more.
It is important to note that it is difficult to measure hours worked precisely. People in salaried positions may be working more than a typical 40 hours; similarly, with technology and the Internet facilitating working from home or elsewhere, the line between “work” and “home” is blurred for many people. A trend toward shorter workweeks for the “right” reasons, such as no longer having to put in as many hours to accomplish the same result, is a good thing.
Erosion in the number of hours worked for the “wrong” reasons, such as the millions of people now working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs, is by contrast a bad thing. At this point in time, improvement in the economy will work to increase average workweeks, but over time, the downward trend is almost certain to continue.