More Time to Unwind, Unless You're a Woman

We hear plenty of talk about income inequality these days, but issues surrounding the inequality of work itself may be no less important.

John Maynard Keynes, the great British economist, prophesied that by 2030 people in wealthy nations would work no more than 15 hours a week. It isn’t turning out that way.

The average workweek for full-time American workers isn’t anywhere close to Keynes’s predictions. Current estimates are 34 to 47 hours, depending on what exactly is being measured and how part-time labor is treated.

The trend isn’t moving in the Keynes direction either: The workweek hasn’t been falling much since World War II, if at all. To the extent that leisure time has gone up, it is mostly because household chores are done more efficiently and because some people have lost their jobs.

Keynes probably underestimated how much safer and more pleasurable many jobs have become, but he made another, perhaps even greater, miscalculation. He failed to foresee a significant shift that underlies these statistics. Women are working far more than they once did, and probably more than they would choose to do, if they were able to balance their work and family lives freely.

The Great Recession had a major effect on the labor supply numbers, but over the long haul we can discern some patterns among gender and age groups. Note, first, that if Keynes had been talking just about older people, he would have been closer to the mark, because older people do work much less than they did decades ago. Certainly, they work much less than younger people. According to one estimate, men over the age of 65 spend almost 43 percent more time on recreation than do men of prime working age. Over all, older men spend far more time than younger ones on reading, watching television and taking cruises, among other fun activities. Fewer than 20 percent of men over 65 are in the work force today. We tend to take this for granted, but it’s a radical contrast with 1880, when that figure was about 75 percent.

In short, most older people already enjoy a much better deal than Keynes had predicted for the entire work force. The 1930 Keynes essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” didn’t even mention retirement, perhaps because he was accustomed to a world in which so many people worked until they died or were seriously disabled.

Teenagers are also ahead of Keynes’s workplace predictions. Several decades ago, about 55 percent of teenagers had jobs, but lately only about 35 percent do. In addition, service sector jobs have been replacing jobs involving manual labor. While enormous disparities exist among teenagers of different races and income groups, over all, life has gotten easier for them.

A crucially important cohort is working less, too, though not as little as Keynes expected. In 2014, about 12 percent of American men ages 25 to 54 neither had jobs nor were looking for work, compared with about 8 percent in 1994. With a healthier job market, more of those men would probably be working.

If people in all of these groups are working less, then someone must be working more. The answer, overwhelmingly, is women, who have taken on an Atlaslike role in supporting American economic growth.

There are reasons to believe that at least some of the growth in female work hours has been an unfair burden. It is well known, for instance, that men do not come anywhere close to fully sharing in the household chores or child rearing when their partners are working, and that often means more stress for women. Furthermore, the best available evidence, from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both professors of public policy at the University of Michigan (Mr. Wolfers is also a regular contributor to this column), suggest that overall female happiness in America has been declining, while age-adjusted death rates for middle-aged white women — though not for white men — have been increasing. Those troubling trends are perhaps another sign that the distribution of stress has been uneven.

Women, of course, were barred from many jobs in the past. With many workplace barriers falling, unequal bargaining power within families remains a problem for some women, who end up with a work-leisure balance that is not what they would ideally choose.

On the other hand, many women do receive significant recompense in leisure time eventually — once they become older. Because women on average live longer than men, they are likely to have more years in retirement. Yet it is a strange society that disproportionately bunches much work and stress for so many women in the middle of their lives, and rewards them only much later with leisure. It is a kind of feast or famine for work, leisure and earnings.

Most economic models don’t account for these patterns, and instead assume that people engage in what is called smoothing behavior, in which leisure and work is evenly distributed across the years. Yet Americans as a whole are not experiencing that kind of moderation.

In short, we hear plenty of talk about income inequality these days, but issues surrounding the inequality of work itself may be no less important.