As employers have sharply cut back employment since 2007, at least one survey asserted that existing employees have to work a lot more in order to maintain what was produced by the formerly larger work force.
The Census Bureau’s monthly household surveys do not suggest that such a pattern is widespread, because they measure that average weekly hours worked per employed person have fallen to 37.8 in 2009 from 39.0 in 2007. Another survey also measures hours worked, with a similar result. So it seems that the number of people employed and the hours they work have fallen, creating a huge drop in the economy’s total work hours.
But sometimes surveys can be misleading about hours worked, because people tend to report round numbers like “40 hours” or “35 hours” even when actual hours worked are not a round number (more than 40 percent of employed people in the monthly household survey reported that they worked 40 hours in the reference week, compared with a mere 0.4 percent who reported 39 hours of work). It is logically possible that a number of employed people were working more hours in recent years, but continued to report the round number of 40.
Since 2003, the Census Bureau has supplemented its population survey with the American Time Use Survey, dedicated to measuring time use. Participants in that survey are asked to account for all their waking hours in a specific day, listing various activities, including eating, watching television, working, traveling, caring for children and so on.
The diary study therefore has no bias toward finding that masses of people work exactly eight hours every day for exactly five days a week. It would be interesting to know if the recent recession looks different when the economy’s work hours are measured from the diaries, rather than from the population surveys as the product of employees and hours per employee.
The chart below displays the results. Eight calendar years are sampled, from 2003 to 2010. The blue line is based on the household survey and is an index (normalized to 100 in the year 2007) of the average number of hours worked by adults. It shows about a 2 percent increase in hours worked from 2003 to 2006. Hours worked were about the same in 2007 as in 2006. For each of the three years after 2007, work hours were significantly below the previous year.
The red line is also an index of hours worked per person — but based on the time diary methodology (here I look at the sum of hours spent at work and in “income-generating activities”). The time diary actually suggests there was a mild recession in 2004, because hours worked per person were lower that year than in the surrounding years. Also unlike the household survey, the time diary suggests that work hours in 2007 were abnormally high by comparison with all previous years.
The time diary closely agrees with the household survey measures for the years 2008-10, confirming that hours worked dropped sharply after 2007. Although a few employers may require their workers to work longer hours, the typical pattern since 2007 is fewer hours per employee, and fewer employees.