Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Working time

In the late 19th century workers in industrialised economies knew labour and little else. In 1870 full-time work generally meant between 60 and 70 hours of labour per week, or more than 3,000 hours per year. Over the century that followed rising incomes were accompanied by a steady drop in weekly hours, which had fallen to about 40, on average, by 1970. Though less conspicuous a boon than larger pay packets or higher living standards, the drop was a gift to working people of a thousand or so precious hours of free time each year.

The best analyses suggest that such gifts have been far less generous in the years since, in some countries at least. In France and Germany hours worked per person have continued to drop over the past few decades, albeit more slowly than in the past. In Germany, where one of the largest trade unions recently won for its workers the right to a 28-hour working week, employees now put in fewer than 1,400 hours per year.

The decline in America and Britain has been substantially smaller; indeed hours worked in those countries have actually risen since the 2000s. Most studies find that in practice the income effect dominates: as wages rise, people work less. The recent rise in hours worked in America and Britain thus looks odd indeed, especially since working time is rising most among high-income workers.

Historically, organised labour has led the charge for reduced working hours. Withered trade unions in America and Britain have been far less able to win concessions than have their continental counterparts. Similarly, they have lacked the clout to win the higher pay that would allow poorer people to work less without intolerably lower incomes.

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