Economic Snapshot | Jobs and Unemployment

Working hard or hardly working?

Snapshot for November 12, 2008.

Working hard or hardly working?

by Monique Morrissey

In the post-World War II period, work hours per capita have trended upward by more than an hour a year, largely due to the influx of women into the labor force. Thus, for example, the average American worked 48 hours more—the equivalent of six extra days or more than a work week—in 1999 than in 1952, comparable points in the business cycle (see chart).

This has been a mixed blessing. On one hand, the increase in women’s paid work has shored up household incomes, especially during the recent period of stagnant wage growth. On the other hand, families are squeezed for time, with many Americans working harder just to maintain their standard of living, since productivity growth has neither fully translated into rising wages for the typical worker nor increased leisure time.

In recent years, the economy has been underperforming, with work hours plummeting in the wake of the 2001 recession and then languishing during the weak expansion. Some of this is due to an aging population,1 but the main reason is weak labor demand. As we saw in a recent Snapshot, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “underemployment” rate, a broad measure that includes both unemployed workers and involuntary part-timers, is the highest it has been in 14 years.

1.The labor force participation rate would have been around 1.5% higher in 1999 and 2% higher in 2005 if the age composition of the labor force had been the same as in 1960. Adjusting per capita hours accordingly, about 10% of the decline after 1999 can be attributed to the aging of the population (author’s calculations, based on Robert F. Szafran, “Age-adjusted labor force participation rates, 1960-2045,” Monthly Labor Review, September 2002).

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