Before we begin exploring the issue of work hours, we can all analyze this question ourselves and think about the amount of time we spend at work. Is it really 8 hours for Full Time? Is the amount of time we spend at work declining? Or, has a pattern appeared where we spend more than the typical 8 hours a day on paid employment? Either way, even though it is a great exercise to analyze how we experience our own work hours, we cannot rely on anecdotal evidence. Let’s see what the studies show.
Below we can see a table published by Lawrence Mishel from the Economic Policy Institute, which shows that the average worker in the United States increased the hours of work from 1,687 hours per year in 1979 to 1,868 hours per year in 2007. This could be interpreted as the equivalent of 10.7% increase, or that each worker now works 4.5 more weeks per year (Mishel, 2013). Additionally, women had a larger increase (20.3%) than men (4.4%).
These results align with the work of Juliet Schor and Laura Leete where they describe that market hours in the United States have increased between 1969 and 1989. Their analysis is particularly interesting because they differentiated between Constrained and Unconstrained Labor Force, defining the Unconstrained as people who are employed but who are not involuntarily underemployed and the Constrained as the ones who would like to work more hours but are unable to find them. They noticed that the largest increase in annual work hours appears in the Unconstrained group, while the Constrained group has seen their annual hours decrease. This means that the majority of Americans are experiencing an increase in work hours whole a growing minority are unable to find the amount of work they would want to have (Leet and Schor, 1992).
What about Europe? The story is a little different among many continental European countries, because their hours have actually continued to decrease. There are many studies suggesting the reasons why Europe contrasts the United States. Bell and Freeman for example find that income inequality (which is lower in Europe than in the US, has a significant, positive effect on work hours. As people see their income not increase along with inflation, they tend to work longer hours to balance the difference (Bell and Freeman, 2001). Also, Samuel Bowles finds that in countries with higher levels of income inequality, the hours of work in manufacturing are higher (Bowles, 1985). On the other hand, Alesina, Sacerdote and Glaeser find that there is significant decrease in work hours in European countries that have strong labor unions, generous welfare states, high taxation, and social democratic governments, all of which contribute to lower income inequality. In fact, they point out to a very interesting hypothesis, which they call “social multiplier”, where social interactions might increase the effect of the work-reducing policies and union achievements (Alesina, Sacerdote and Glaeser, 2005). If your neighbor or relative has more time off, you are more likely to demand or to choose more leisure. After all, a vacation is more fun when you can take it with your friends or relatives who are also on vacation. This might also explain why American unions fight more for increases in wages, as opposed to European unions, who have fought more for gaining more leisure.
These analyses comparing both US and European labor market show that the issue of shorter work hours is highly political and depends mostly on the willingness of a government to encourage it. Furthermore, they also offer a balanced perspective against the conventional argument that Capitalism has an intrinsic effect in declining work hours. Juliet Schor argues that this particular view of Capitalism is biased because of a narrow perspective in analyzing work hours trends, which usually takes into consideration that work hours have been declining since mid 19th century. Although this statement is true (work hours have been declining since mid 19th century, where 65-70 hours of work per week was the norm) it fails to recognize that Capitalism did not start in the mid 19th century. Prior to that, it is estimated that work hours were in the 2,300 hours per year in medieval ages (about 44 hours per week) and almost 2,000 between the years 1400 and 1600 (around 38 hrs/week). Work hours then started to increase due to the growth experienced by the market and they finally reached a peak in the mid 19th century at 3588 hours per year (almost 70 hours per week). This is the time where two things happened: workers started to organize and form unions and work together in order to reclaim the shorter hours their ancestors had before, and also, business owners realized that exhaustion actually had a negative effect on productivity so they were more accepting of shorter hours (Schor, 1992).
Additionally, there are some structural biases that promote or encourage longer work hours. Inequality, as mentioned before, forces workers to increase their amount of work hours to compensate for the decline in household income. A second bias against shorter hours are benefits like medical insurance, which in the US is a large cost for firms as opposed to the European countries, where most of them have universal health care. Medical insurance costs in the United States are calculated on a per employee basis. Reducing the workday would mean that the firm will have to hire an additional worker and therefore, duplicate the cost of health care. A third bias is the effect of salary versus hourly paid. When a worker is paid per hour, the firm will have to pay overtime for every hour the employee spends at work beyond the regular shift. For a salaried worker, it is easy to hide those extra hours beyond the regular 40 hours per week as unpaid for the firm. Finally, the level of unemployment plays a crucial role towards longer hours. If unemployment is low, firms have a harder time to hire new personnel and therefore, they will have to offer higher wages. This will push firms to prefer to have the existing workers work longer hours rather than hiring new workers.
As Mishel’s work suggests, we are not only working longer and harder in the United States, but very disappointing returns in income. Additionally, while the ones who do have a full time job experience longer work hours, the underemployed or unemployed are having a hard time finding more hours of work. And it is not difficult to deduct why. Barry Bluestone and Stephen Rose explain the following:
…Weekly hours have expanded from a low of 37.6 in 1982 to a present level  of close to 39. From a labor supply perspective, this is equivalent to increasing the number of workers in the economy by 3.6%. Given that the workforce was just about 100 million strong in 1982, this increase in weekly hours represents approximately the same addition to labor supply as if we had added 3.6 million new workers to the total workforce – or had reduced the official unemployment rate by 3.6% points. Between 1982 and 1996, the workforce as conventionally measured increased by 27.2 million. Hence, the increase in weekly hours among incumbent workers was equivalent to about 13% of the hours available from new workers. This is hardly a trivial amount, yet it is overlooked in measured of labor supply based on official unemployment rates. (Bluestone and Rose, 2000)
It is imperative then to create an environment where people can choose the amount of work they will want to perform, perhaps by creating a market for shorter hours, or by eliminating some of the barriers or biases that are encouraging longer hours.