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The 40 hour work week is dead: This is the new ‘hard work week’

People at work and woman relaxing on a couch
The week at work is very different in 2022

What is accepted to be a full working week has changed a lot over the last few years. The Friday night swill has been replaced by city bars packed to the rafters on Thursday nights instead as hybrid workers clock in for their first or second day of the week in the office.

Come Friday many workplaces are now only thick with the silence of unanswered emails as more and more people work from home or even do a four-day week and knock off before Friday.

As a nation Aussies aren’t doing the work hours we used to, and the 40-hour week is now a lot less common.

Graph of working hours
Graph of working hours

However, this is not a new trend. Working hours have been falling - gradually - for a couple of hundred years. And thank goodness, because in the ‘good old days’ working hours used to be truly horrific.

In 1830, the UK government passed a Factory Act, which ruled that children aged 9-13 couldn’t work more than 48 hours a week, while 13-18 year olds were not allowed to work more than 69 hours each week (with exceptions!). Work hours were limited to 5am to 9pm for the under-13s and adults could be working 15 hours a day (which is 90 hours a week).

A few decades later things started to change for the better. In Australia in 1856, stonemasons were fighting for -and winning - the right to an eight-hour day (however stonemasons did have a lot more bargaining power thanks to their skills so had a lot more to negotiate with than children working in a factory.)

Factories have been the site of some really long hours. The industrial revolution brought people who had previously worked the fields - and could not work at night - and in doing so increased work hours.. Interestingly, some anthropologists said agriculture actually increased our work hours and the lowest work hours in history was even before the invention of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers, they believe, worked only a few hours a day!

The pattern of falling working hours is worldwide, as the next chart shows.

working less
working less

Also by Jason Murphy:

The rise of flexible work can benefit society particularly due to its effect on one group in particular – women. Flexible work means that many women are able to have lifelong careers for the first time in history, thanks to the availability of part-time jobs and flexible hours and working locations means that women can stay in touch with the workforce even at times when they are engaged in more child-rearing.

However, this can be a double-edged sword as some data has found women end up retaining more of their caring responsibilities AND working so this model still needs some work to be truly equitable.

Underemployment
Underemployment

Do fewer hours just mean underemployment?

Falling working hours is only good news if people have enough work.

The great news is that underemployment is low now. After a big spike in 2020, Australia’s rate of underemployment has fallen to a level we haven’t seen in over a decade. As the next chart shows, unemployment has barely been lower than this since the 1990s recession.

Working life starts later and ends later now

We’ve come a long way since the 1800s when children staffed the factories. A few decades ago almost half of 15-19-year-olds had a full-time job, nowadays it is rare, with under 20 percent of young people giving up school to pursue full-time work. Equally a few decades ago the average 60-64 year old was retired and off work completely, but that person still works. Our working lives are shifting to later in life as we pursue more education. (One sign of a truly tight labour market would be if firms start hiring good people after a 3-year degree, or even straight from high school!)

Working hard? Or hardly working?

On any day it’s not hard to find someone complaining about modern life. All this pollution and traffic and technology, and what have we got to show for it? Things that you buy that fall apart the day after the warranty expires and house prices are up around our ears.

All that is true, but where progress is showing up is in the fact we are gaining our standard of living with less and less effort. That means less toil and more leisure. Or things that are a bit like leisure, at least.

Men are spending way more time with their kids, for one thing. Time spent with kids has nearly doubled. Far more men aren’t working at all these days – male workforce participation is down. But even among men who are working, average work hours are down, from 8 hours 36 minutes in 1992 to 8 hours 13 minutes a day in 2021.

I 1992 there were five TV channels, probably only four of them could be received at your house, and a VCR to watch video cassettes on would cost a week's wages. You likely watched the same channel all night because there was no remote control. Despite this, Australians still watch 1 hour and 48 minutes of TV and videos each day.

But that has gone up a lot. Today, we spend 2 hours and 55 minutes a day watching TV and videos. Thank goodness for Disney Plus and Netflix - they are much better than Hey Hey it’s Saturday and Burke’s Backyard! While this is just a viewing statistic it makes sense that the quality – and diversity- of our leisure activities will increase as people have more leisure time to spend.

And if trends continue, we will have more and more leisure time to spend.

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