Do we work less than we did a century ago?

By | 20.10.2016

Valerie Ramey and Neville Francis developed comprehensive measures of time spent doing different activities – working, doing housework (cooking, cleaning etc.), being at school and enjoying leisure time – in the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th century. The research question was initially motivated by economic theory which suggests that as the society is getting richer, we should be able to afford more leisure time and work less. This is called the income effect.

Interestingly, at the aggregate level, hours devoted to work have changed only mildly. In particular, our generation works, on average, 23 hours per capita per week, which is 4 hours less than in 1900. The overall home production does not change at all – we still work at home around 22 hours per week. Not surprisingly, there has been a huge increase in hours devoted to formal schooling by those aged between 10 and 17 years old. When it comes to leisure, the effect is of a similar magnitude as the change in work hours, but the direction is opposite. We now enjoy four hours more of leisure every week than people who lived a century ago.

Even though the results may seem boring as we observe slight or no changes at all, there are underlying stories which are indeed interesting. During the last century, we have witnessed significant gender convergence. While men tend to work less in market production and more at home, the opposite is true for women. As a result, the gap between male and female hours spent working in work and at home seems to disappear.


Reference: Ramey, V. A., & Francis, N. (2009). A Century of Work and Leisure. American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 189-224. Available here.

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