Americans are working fewer hours than they did before the pandemic, a trend that has both positive and negative implications for the economy and society.
According to a new research paper by former Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Katharine Abraham and her University of Maryland colleague Lea Rendell, the average US workweek has dropped by more than a half hour over the last three years. This drop in working hours has led to a contraction in labor supply equivalent to 2.4 million employees, which adds to inflationary pressures in a hot jobs market that the Federal Reserve is trying to cool down.
“What’s going on with weekly hours is ‘a very significant part of the story why labor supply is so low,’ Stephanie Aaronson, senior associate director of the division of research and statistics at the Fed, said at a conference last week where the research was discussed.
Some of the groups that have reduced their hours include educated young men, high-earners, workaholics and remote workers, who have been able to enjoy more leisure time and work-life balance. “Nobody will notice if you call it a day a little bit earlier on a Friday,” Yongseok Shin, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explained.
However, achieving better balance between professional and personal priorities is not easy or straightforward. It requires a combination of reflexivity and intentional role redefinition, which involves five steps: pause and denormalize, identify alternatives, experiment and learn, implement and adjust, and repeat.
“Work-life balance is not an achievement; it’s an ongoing cycle of self-awareness and intentional role redefinition. It’s not something you can check off your list; it’s something you need to keep working on as your circumstances change,” Ioana Lupu and Mayra Ruiz-Castro wrote in Harvard Business Review.
Policies that address work-life conflict, such as paid family leave, flexible schedules, sick days and childcare, are good for both families and the economy, as they boost labor supply, improve productivity, reduce turnover and absenteeism, and enhance well-being. However, the United States lags behind other countries in terms of providing such policies.
“One of the striking things about the United States is how late we are to the party in understanding that policies that address work-life conflict are good for both families and the economy,” Heather Boushey, economist and author of “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict,” said.
The United States is one of only two countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. It also lags behind other countries in terms of paid sick leave, paid vacation days, flexible work arrangements, and public childcare provision.
As the pandemic has reshaped the way people work and live, many Americans are seeking more balance in their lives. But they also face risks of losing income, career opportunities, and social benefits if they work less. The challenge for policymakers is to create a framework that supports workers’ choices and well-being without compromising economic growth and stability.
– Americans are working less as they embrace more work-life balance | Financial Post, Bloomberg News, Apr 05, 2023
– Work-Life Balance Is a Cycle, Not an Achievement – Harvard Business Review, Ioana Lupu and Mayra Ruiz-Castro, January 29, 2021
– Better Work-Life Balance Helps the Whole Economy – The Aspen Institute, Aspen Institute Staff, March 15, 2016
– US vs. Europe: which has the best work-life balance?, World Economic Forum, November 15, 2016