Average work hours per week are now increasing, for almost the first time since the early 19th century.
A research report from the Resolution Foundation finds: “Since the early 19th century there has been, at least outside of wartime, a pretty steady decline in average hours worked. From the Second World War until the financial crisis average hours worked declined by an average of 12 minutes a year.
“In the decade since they have been flat, and average hours have actually risen recently”.
The decline was more like 20 minutes per year from 1945 to the early 1980s. That was the period when it became standard for workers to have two days off a week. It was already common for Saturday to be a half-day, and full two-day weekends had been common in the USA since the early 20th century.
In the neoliberal era after the early 80s, with unions weaker, the decline slowed to five or 10 minutes a year. The Resolution Foundation researchers reckon the most likely explanation for the recent rise in hours is that, with lower real hourly wage rates (and benefits), people are working longer to keep household income at least up to pre-2008 levels (which they have done). There has also been a big rise, to record levels, in the percentage of the working-age population in jobs.
The statistics tell our unions that they have a strong basis for battles to increase wages and reduce hours — a “tight” labour market in many sectors — but they are failing to wage those battles.