Are we working longer hours?

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by Liana Christin Landivar

Casual conversations and news articles are full of stories about overworked Americans who no longer clock in for the mythical 9-to-5. From working late nights at the office or at home after the kids have gone to bed or taking work on vacation, people feel like they are working 24/7.

Accounts of the lengthening workweek and time intensification resonate with workers who may feel greater time pressure and stress. Long hours are detrimental to work-life balance and research shows that long work-hour expectations push mothers out of the labor force.

Yet the evidence shows that work hours have not increased. Since the early 2000s, work hours have declined broadly across all occupational groups, and the share of men and women working full-time is at its lowest point since 1970. The work-hour decline predates the Great Recession and is not solely attributable to an increase in part-time work.

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Data from the decennial census in combination with the American Community Survey, as well as the Current Population Survey (shown here) are in agreement on the decline in work hours.

Several recent studies use work-hour data that stop around the year 2000. As a result, their conclusions are that work hours are increasing, and they are increasing more among managerial and professional workers. Looking at what happened after the year 2000, I show that this trend did not continue. Similar to the decline in average work hours which started around the year 2000, professional workers follow the same pattern of peaking work hours around the year 2000 with a decline thereafter.

Managers have experienced virtually no change in their work hours for almost 50 years, and two occupations with the longest average workweeks, doctors and lawyers, both show a recent decline in hours worked. Overwork is also down, with a shrinking share of workers putting in over 50 hours a week, discounting the idea that this decline stems solely from an increase in part-time work.

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I came across this surprising finding while doing research for my new book, Mothers at Work: Who Opts Out?  Long hours of work are cited as a key barrier to mothers’ retention, so it was important to understand if work hours were getting longer. Research has shown that long work-hour expectations place mothers at a disadvantage in earnings, promotions, and assignments and can contribute to occupational segregation to the extent that mothers avoid long-hour occupations.

If work hours were, in fact, increasing, mothers might be working under increasingly challenging conditions. To explore how work hours affect mothers’ employment, I used nationally representative data from the American Community Survey for 55 occupation groups, enabling me to compare mothers’ work hours and employment rates across the full spectrum of occupations.

What I found was that mothers working in the occupations with the longest work hours were the most likely to remain employed after having children. While initially seeming counterintuitive that long-hour occupations had the highest retention, mothers in managerial and professional occupations scaled back on work hours more than twice as much as mothers in any other group.

Across all 55 occupations I examined, doctors had the lowest opt-out rates after having children (labor force participation rate no different than non-mothers) and this was inextricably connected to their ability to reduce their work hours when they had young children. Doctors scaled back the largest number of hours (7 hours), but still worked full-time at 47 hours per week.

Women have more work place and work schedule flexibility in managerial and professional occupations, being able to work from home occasionally or set their work hours within a particular window. They are also more likely to have benefits that would enable them to take some time off to take care of a sick child or attend a school event. These occupations’ higher pay and barriers to entry (e.g., higher education and training, licensing) may also discourage labor force exit.

Instead, what we see is that mothers navigate long-hour occupations by using the limited flexibility they have to scale back on work hours, though most scale back only a few hours per week to maintain a full-time schedule. This is important because it maintains their workplace benefits, and small reductions in work hours result in fewer workplace penalties.

Work hours are long in many occupations, and long hours are associated with higher levels of stress and chronic disease, workplace accidents, and increased job dissatisfaction. Long hours also disproportionately reward individuals who have few outside commitments. They are particularly disadvantageous to women who still bear unequal home responsibilities, and run counter to the promotion of gender parity at work.

But contrary to public perception, work hours are not ever increasing. Mothers’ employment today is occurring in a context in which it has become the norm and in which work hours are on the decline, making the combination of work and family responsibilities more compatible. This makes the decline in long work hours welcome news, especially if the trend continues.

Liana Christin Landivar is a sociologist and senior researcher. Her new book, Mothers at Work: Who Opts Out?, is out now.

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