Workers are spending fewer hours on the job on average after working at a record pace during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Private-sector employees worked, on average, 34.3 hours per week, based on July data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s slightly below the 2019 average and down from a peak of 35 hours in January 2021. The average was 34.6 hours at the start of 2023.
Some observers are concerned the gradual decrease in work hours could be an indicator of impending layoffs or even that overdue recession predicted for this year. But labor market economists say not to worry.
“Yes, it is true that average weekly work hours typically fall during a recession, and while the recent decline is pretty substantial, work hours in 2021 were way higher than before the pandemic, when a lot of companies were having severe staffing issues,” said Andrew Flowers, lead labor economist at Appcast.
For many employers, critical positions went unfilled, so work was spread across fewer employees—pushing up the number of hours each worker logged. Many of those organizations have since caught up with staffing.
“So decreasing hours is more of a normalization—consistent with the entire labor market normalizing—rather than something to worry about,” Flowers said.
Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, explained that when job growth is strong, the average workweek tends to be somewhere between 34.3 and 34.6 hours. “We are at the bottom of that range, but there is some noise in the data,” she said. “We are still in a favorable range.”
Pollak added that the high number of work hours measured during the pandemic was abnormal and difficult to sustain. “Employers were so short staffed in 2020 and 2021 that they relied on overtime and temporary help services,” she said. “When employers rely on overtime, workers eventually get burned out and they quit.”
Both economists agreed that there isn’t a need to be concerned unless work hours continue to decline, falling below the normal range.
Expressions like “lazy girl jobs” and “quiet quitting” may be new, but working fewer hours is not a recent phenomenon driven by the pandemic, Flowers said.
“There’s been a long-term trend in U.S. workers working less hours over the last seven decades,” he said. “People are working less overall than a few decades ago.”
According to BLS data, the average workweek was 38.7 in 1964 and 34.5 in 1999.
Falling work hours is happening in all advanced economies, Flowers said. “U.S. working hours are higher than in Western Europe, for example, but hours are on the decline across those countries as well.”
Declining demand is a main factor in falling work hours when examining the data by industry, Pollak said. “The workweek has come down by about 30 minutes in goods-related industries like nondurable goods manufacturing, retail, and transportation and warehousing, as Americans have shifted back from goods to services.”
Another factor was the ability to offer remote work during the pandemic. The industries that rely on in-person work critically needed people in the first years of the pandemic, spreading work among a smaller group of people working longer hours.
In manufacturing, the average workweek was 40.1 hours in July, down from 40.4 a year ago. The average factory worker had 3.0 overtime hours, down from 4.1 hours a year earlier.
“If you want to look at whether hours worked is a sign of a recession, you can look at overtime hours worked in manufacturing,” Flowers said. “That spiked during the recovery period but has been pretty stable for about six months now.”
Opting to Work Less
Some have speculated that another reason that work hours are decreasing is because people are choosing to work less. There has been a lot of attention on employees seeking more work/life balance since the turmoil of the pandemic.
There has been a push for more work/life balance and working less hours, but that hasn’t made much of a dent in the BLS data, Pollak said.
She pointed to other research that shows that even as workers express interest in a four-day workweek, they say they would use the free day to pick up additional work.
“I don’t think the workweek is going to decline much anytime soon in the U.S.,” she said. “Americans are known for working a lot, and taking part in the hustle culture, working multiple jobs and doing gig work on the side. It’s a country of strivers, despite the popularity of the four-day workweek.”
This content was originally published here.