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In countries where hours of work are the subject of collective agreements, the pattern of reference for the length of the working day is often given by governmental legislation that limits working hours. The concept of “normal hours” or “legal hours” (France) is used to describe the limit beyond which overtime becomes payable. Although this legal, institutional, and focal time sets the basic rules for entrepreneurial activity, it does not provide an accurate indicator for the amount of time effectively supplied by individuals. The pervasiveness of practices such as overtime, part-time, moonlighting, sick leave, and remuneration systems such as piece rates, hourly wages, or monthly salary, all contribute towards extending or shrinking job hours across offices, shops, and manufacturers. If common sense generally recognizes the working day as something typical that can be calculated as the work time accomplished during a twenty-four-hour period or as the total work-time accomplished in one week, statistical analysis prefers instead to draw this measurement over the full cycle of the year to capture the global picture of work effort. Two main variables are generally considered: “average hours of work per person employed,” which describes actual hours in the work-post, whether paid or unpaid; and “market hours,” which describes hours at work, plus paid off-time (e.g., vacations, holidays, sick leave, and maternity leave).
In terms of free workers who receive payment, the peak of human effort seems to have been historically reached by the middle of the nineteenth century, a time when working hours attained an annual level of between 3,150 to 3,650 hours per year (61 to 70 hours per week). Such harsh conditions resulted from a long-term trend to cut leisure time in the form of breaks and holidays, and from a short-term tendency to expand work time in factory and cottage industries. In western Europe and the United States, men, women, and children experienced the repetition of a twelve-, fourteen-, or even sixteen-hour day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. This was also a period of habituation to the economy of time revealed by mechanical clocks, supervisor’s discipline, and fines.
From 1880 onwards, most workers saw the achievement of the ten-hour day, and only a few who worked in the more competitive industries such as textiles, leather, food-processing, paper, chemicals, and energy production exceeded this limit. In spite of these achievements the spark of industrial agitation and strikes continued thereafter ignited by the demand for higher pay and shorter hours, in what came to be known as the “eight-hour day movement.” The bulk of unions’ and workers’ voluntary associations joined this demand, and both businessmen and governments were preemptively forced to review work schedules.
By 1920 the eight-hour day was recognized by law in the main industrialized countries. Further reductions in work time took the form of reducing the work week from six to five-and-a-half days, and later to five days. After that, the downward trend continued through small incremental decreases instead of drastic changes. Thanks to the extension of vacations, holidays, sick days, personal leave, and earlier retirement, substantial improvements were added to the standard of living and the leisure time of workers. The decline in labor time became visible not only in the typical working day, but in all aspects of people’s lives.
For much of the 1950s and 1960s, the primary beneficiaries of fewer working hours were the less educated and lower paid workers. Studies regarding American occupations revealed that individuals with a college education worked longer hours than people with a less formal education. To a lesser extent, those with larger incomes followed the same path of an extended working time. Hence, the upper echelons benefited from the productivity gains brought about by the golden age of economic development through increases in money instead of increases in leisure.
According to sociologist Juliet Schor (1991), the trade-off of more money for less leisure time, endemic of senior executives and professionals, soon filtered down to the less well-off segments of society, wedging millions of Americans into a work-and-spend cycle and an unremitting shortage of free time. Schor estimates that between 1969 and 1987, the average employed person was on the job for an additional 163 hours per year, the equivalent of an extra month. The additional month is attributable to both longer weekly schedules and to more weeks at work, revealing an overturn in the process of incremental decreases of the working day. The causes are twofold: On the supply side, people changed the extension of vacations, holidays, sick days, personal leave, and single jobs for more money; on the demand side, enterprises preferred to pay for overtime rather than increase the fringe benefits required by a larger staff. Schor then concludes that individual choices and economic constraints contributed to the contemporary outcome of the overworked American.
Recent studies have confirmed the tendency to augment working hours, even though this is a phenomenon restricted to a particular group of countries, such as the United States, Sweden, and Hungary. The main pattern of industrializing nations still runs in the direction of a shorter working time or through a stabilization of the average hours of work per person employed, which at present is between 1,500 and 2,000 hours per year.
The increased flexibility of working hours established by a number of arrangements has contradictory effects over the length of the working day: On the one hand, it contributes to the extent of full-time employment through overtime, evening, night, and weekend working; on the other hand, it contributes to shorter hours through the growth of part-time employment. While the United States currently matches the first case, the Japanese evolution fits well into the second.
- Atack, J., and Fred Bateman. 1992. How Long Was the Workday in 1880? The Journal of Economic History 52 (1): 129–160.
- Costa, Dora L. 2000. The Wage and the Length of the Work Day: From the 1890s to 1991. Journal of Labor Economics 18 (1): 156–181.
- Evans, John M., Douglas C. Lippoldt, and Pascal Marianna. 2001. Trends in Working Hours in OECD Countries (Labour markets and Social Policy Occasional Papers No. 45. OECD Publishing.
- Schor, Juliet B. 1991. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books.
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