Women’s working week lasts an hour longer since the crisis

Britain’s centuries-long fall in the length of the working week has stalled in the wake of the financial crisis, and has actually increased by an hour for women and young people over the past decade, according to new research published today (Saturday) by the Resolution Foundation.

The Times They Aren’t A Changin’ – supported by Trust for London – explores what has driven the long term fall in the average number of hours worked per week, why that fall has stalled since the crisis, and what might happen to the working week in the future.

The report shows that the average working week has halved in length over the past 150 years – from around 64 hours in the 1850s to 32 hours in 2006.

Looking at what has driven the fall between the late 1970s and the financial crisis, the report notes that the general focus on rising productivity driving up pay and allowing people to trade in hours of work for more leisure time is important – but incomplete.

The report argues that a wider focus, not on individual workers but on the households they live in, holds the key to understanding falling working hours. It identifies two key factors:

  • Rising female employment. The proportion of workers who are women has risen from 40 per cent in 1979 to 47 per cent today. This reduces average working hours because women tend to work shorter hours than men (27.5 hours, compared to 36.9 hours), although women’s hours have been slowly getting longer.
  • Fewer hours, and more part-time work, for men. One impact of rising female employment is more two earner households – boosting families’ incomes and enabling (often male) primary earners to reduce their hours and share total working hours across the household. Today, one in seven men work 30 hours per week or less.

However, despite rising female employment continuing to put downward pressure on the average number of hours worked, the 12-year stagnation in real pay has meant the average working week has stopped getting shorter. Workers have looked for more hours of work to protect their family incomes.

In fact, the average working week has actually got slightly longer (by 40 mins) since 2009, particularly for women (+65 mins) and 18-24 year olds (+60 mins).

Looking at the average working week in Britain today, the report shows it is completely different to previous eras in a number of areas. It finds that:

  • The longest hours are now worked by the highest earners and most qualified. This is acomplete reversal of earlier working patterns when the least-qualified workers and lowest earners worked the longest.
  • Women’s working week peaks in their mid-20s(at 30.4 hours) before falling and then recovering slightly (to 28.9 hours) in their late 40s. In contrast, men’s hours peak in their mid-30s (at 39.0 hours) and stay at around that level until their 50s.
  • Children increase the ‘working week gender gap’. At age 28, mothers are in work for 15 hours less per week, on average, than fathers.
  • London works the longest hours of any region. The capital’s long hours (32.8 a week) are explained by its younger, higher-educated workforce and low rate of part-time work.

The Foundation stresses that the analysis focuses on paid hours of employment by workers, rather than the broader hours of unpaid work taking place in the household, or travel time in between. How we use time outside of paid work will be the focus of future Resolution Foundation research.

George Bangham, Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“The length of the average paid working week has halved over the past 150 years, as people have traded in rising prosperity for more leisure time.

“In recent decades rising female employment and the linked growth in male part time work have meant that households are sharing paid work more evenly, further driving down the average working week for individuals.

“But falls in the average working week have stalled since the crisis, and working time has been rising for women.

“Solving the UK’s productivity crisis is far more interesting to economists than it is to your average household. But returning to rising productivity would boost workers’ pay packets and potentially reduce the length of their working week, which matters a lot to everyone.”