NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Overwork Overstated

September 1, 1997

Earlier this year, however, a new book appeared challenging the conventional wisdom. Time for Life by sociologists John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey (Penn State University Press) concluded that Americans today have more leisure than ever -- about five hours more per week than in the 1960s. They based this conclusion on a large study of people who kept detailed diaries of how they spent their time day-by-day. In contrast, Schor and other researchers have based their analyses on aggregate data collected by the federal government and pollsters.

There are many reasons for the divergence in results. One is that government data generally are based on hours paid, rather than hours worked. Thus a worker on paid vacation would be counted as working, even though he is not. They also count hours per job, rather than hours per worker. Polls force people to recall how many hours they may have worked in a previous week, a method that frequently causes them to overestimate their actual working time. Robinson and Godbey found that the more hours a person worked per week, the more hours they thought they had worked. For example, people actually working 55 hours per week thought they had worked 65 hours.

The latest research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), published in the "Monthly Labor Review" in April, shows that the average workweek has not changed much in the last 20 years. However, the diversity of work arrangements has changed considerably (see figure). Workers between the ages of 25 and over 54, who tend to work longer hours, rose as a share of the labor force. BLS also found that the number of employees working 49 hours or more per week increased and the number working just 40 fell. Those working over 49 hours tended to be high-paid employees -- managers and professionals.

In the end, the real question is not whether people are working longer, but whether they are happy with whatever work arrangement they have. Surveys indicate that by and large workers are satisfied and many would prefer more hours of work, rather than fewer, as the recent UPS strike demonstrated.


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