Apr 7, 2023 - Economy

Americans are working fewer hours than before the pandemic

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics and calculations by Katharine Abraham, Lea Rendell; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics and calculations by Katharine Abraham, Lea Rendell; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans, men especially, are working fewer hours now than they did before the pandemic, according to a new paper presented at Brookings last week.

Why it matters: The research suggests that the decline in hours has something to do with a shift in attitudes toward work over the past few years, with more people reevaluating their work-life balance in favor of the life part.

  • The decline is also keeping the labor market pretty hot, even as the economy has cooled in recent months.

What they found: The average workweek was 36.9 hours in November 2022, down from 37.5 in January 2020, according to data the authors analyzed from the Labor Department’s Current Population Survey.

  • About 10% of the decline could be attributable to workers with long COVID, the authors estimate. The rest is "more of a puzzle," they write.
  • But anecdotal evidence points to "a broad-based re-evaluation regarding the balance people wish to strike between their work and personal lives."

Perhaps surprisingly, men's average weekly hours have fallen more noticeably than women's, the authors found.

  • Men who were working very long hours before the pandemic, and those with more education, are working less now, explained Yongseok Shin, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, in a slide presentation on his own research that he gave during the discussion at Brookings.
  • These men, who were in the top decile for hours worked, went from working 55 hours a week in 2019 to 52 hours in 2022, he said.
  • “And the top 10% of male workers by earnings (making more than $140,000 per year) reduced their work hours by 1.5 hours per week, from 44.7 hours in 2019 to 43.2 hours per week in 2022," writes Shin in an analysis in the Harvard Business Review.
  • Lower-wage workers actually increased their hours, he writes.

What's going on? It was easier for the highest-earning men, who likely aren't being paid hourly, to recalibrate their priorities and dial back their work hours, Shin writes.

The bottom line: Researchers are only just beginning to understand how COVID has upended the way we live and work.

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