Points of View

​Trends in Work Hours Vary Across Different Demographics

Sam Stebbins

A report from the Economic Policy Institute, titled “Working harder or finding it harder to work,” examines trends in work hours across different demographics. These trends, from 1979 through 2016, show an “increasingly fractured workforce.”

     

Varying Demographic Trends

Overall, the average annual work hours among all prime-age adults have increased 7.8% from 1979 to 2016. Prime-age adults who earn the least and work the fewest hours have increased their work hours the most.

 

Perhaps the most significant trend is an increased number of men leaving the labor market as more women enter. This is “narrowing but not closing” the gender gap in hours worked annually. Of the increased hours women work annually, 57% is due to working more weeks per year, while the remaining 43% is due to increasing hours per week. According to the report, “the results are basically reversed for men”; 66% of their decline is due to working fewer hours per week, while 34% is due to working fewer weeks per year.

 

There are many potential explanations for the decline in men’s participation, ranging ranged from a rise in serious health problems and the opioid crisis to young men choosing to spend more time on leisure activities such as video games.

 

While women have increased their work hours overall, there is variation among ethnic or racial demographics. Black women work as many hours as white women until the economy slows down and they are less able to retain work. A majority of black women who did not work in 2016 reported that they were out of work “involuntarily.”

 

Additionally, black women have the smallest gender gap among working parents. This suggests that they feel they have less flexibility to reduce their work hours to care for a family, likely because black workers earn less than white workers overall and black men work fewer hours than white men.

 

Black men are also working fewer weeks per year, suggesting less steady employment. On the other hand, Hispanic men are working fewer hours per week. This suggests less-than-full-time employment.

 

Hispanic women are, by far, the most likely to be nonearners and disconnected from the labor market. That said, the largest increase in hours overall is among Hispanic women (+51.6%), followed by white women (+50.8%), and black women (+38.8%).

         

Conclusions based on number of hours worked

The Economic Policy Institute’s findings suggest that, based on the number of hours per week and weeks per year worked across a variety of racial, ethnic, and gender groups, opportunities and barriers to work vary as well. “While American workers are united around the desire to secure a comfortable standard of living…through work,” the report states, “opportunities to do so are not universally available.”

 

One issue that workers across all demographics face is wage inequality, which has grown since the 1970s. Potentially due to stagnating or declining wages, workers are either working many more hours per year to compensate or disconnecting from the labor force altogether.

 

However, the phenomenon known as an “elastic response” to falling unemployment shows that “boosting economic opportunities will draw in many willing and able workers.”


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