A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 29, 2013

Why We Are Working Less Than Our Parents Did

We feel like we're always on, 24-7-365. We're texting, emailing, skyping constantly: in restaurants, while babysitting, walking and driving. We are never not connected. People talk about their yearning to go off the grid - and then freak out when they are actually out of touch.

But for all that frenetic activity, much of it, let us freely admit, somewhat less than productive, we are logging fewer hours than our parents did back in the day when phones were actually for talking, mobile meant driving in a car and computers were big machines serviced by buzz cut nerds wearing white short sleeve shirts with pocket protectors.

So what gives? The reality is that we are starting 'work' later in our lives, ending sooner - and spending a fair amount of time as part timers or contractors. Some of this is voluntary - the entrepreneurial ethos being what it is. But much, probably most of it, is forced upon us by an economy in which we have little influence.

This was originally a vision to which we all subscribed: less drudgery, more time to smell the roses, coffee, children, etc. But that vision was somewhat innocently predicated on the assumption that we would make the same amount or more, all of us ostensibly beneficiaries of the labor-saving revolution. What we did not reckon with is that the spoils would not be evenly divided. Our lives may be longer than our forebears' were and for many, better in some ways despite increasingly straitened circumstances, but it not only doesnt feel that way, it may, in fact, become less pleasant if this trend continues.

Technology and global competition are reducing both real and expected differences across the world. Income and diets reflect that. The advantage Americans in particular enjoyed for the 35 years following World War II is dissipating. So, it is not clear that current or future western generations will actually get to enjoy those fewer hours. And the fact of less work may be purely transitory, evidence of an imbalance in the process of correcting itself. But for the moment, at least, we have time on our hands. Better to make good use of it while it lasts, because even these may turn out to be 'the good old days' compared to what the future may hold.

Steve Hargreaves reports in CNN/Money:

It's a common complaint: You feel like you're working constantly, and there's never enough time to enjoy life.
But as a whole, Americans are working far less now than they did a generation ago, and have more leisure time than ever.
The average work week has gone from over 38 hours in 1964 to under 34 hours in 2013 -- a drop of nearly 12%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A big reason for the decline is the growth in part-time jobs, which have surged as more women entered the workforce and the number of restaurants, shopping malls, and other establishments that employ part-time workers have exploded.
Another explanation is that people tend to stay in school longer and retire earlier, clocking fewer hours over their lifetime. Men in their 50s, for example, have been retiring or entering semi-retirement earlier and in greater numbers than those in previous generations, according to John Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, and are partly responsible for driving down overall work hours per week.
And we're working a lot less than our grandparents, great grandparents and earlier generations. The average work week for a manufacturing employee in the 1860s was 62 hours, according to a paper from Robert Whaples, an economist at Wake Forest University.
In the 1600s, there were actually laws requiring a minimum work day, wrote Whaples. In parts of the country, most people had to work sun up to sundown -- part of the Puritanical "idle-hands-are-the-devil's-workshop" ethos.
Related: 10 hardest working countries
It wasn't easy to change that culture. Political battles that led to less religious influence over the nation's laws almost sparked a civil war. A century later, labor activists fought for decades to get the 40 hour work week.
Coinciding with the shorter work week is a rise in leisure time. Americans reported having just under 35 hours a week of "free time" in 1965 -- that's time not spent at work, doing housework, eating, sleeping or doing other activities necessary for day-to-day survival, according to research by Robinson, who directs the American's Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland.
By 2012, it had reached 42, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"People feel less rushed than they did even a decade ago," said Robinson.
Skilled workers still can't find jobs
And thanks to modern technology, the time we spend on housework and cooking is declining.
Just what are we doing with all these extra hours? Watching more TV, mostly.
Related: World's shortest work weeks
But technology certainly hasn't made all our lives easier.
Some people, especially those at the higher end of the earnings spectrum, report working more hours than they want to. This is particularly true for professionals who are now tied to their work by smartphones and email.
Also, many Americans are working part time not because they want to, but because their jobs have been replaced by automation, outsourced, or otherwise eliminated.
"The promise of technology is that we'd all get to work less," said Linda Barrington, head of the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University's school of Industrial and Labor Relations. "But it's playing out differently for different people at different income levels."
Barrington believes the Affordable Care Act - a.k.a. Obamacare -- is the first real law intended to deal with some of the disruption of a changing workplace, as more Americans enter freelance or part-time positions that don't provide health insurance.
As happened during the industrial revolution, she feels other measures will need to take shape to make the technological revolution more beneficial to all workers.
"How are we going to change the rules again?" she asked.


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