Less Work Is Making People More Unhappy

A four-day week is the ultimate worker fantasy, yet we’re already working less than previous generations and feeling more burned out.
Woman working on a computer. (Source: pxhere)
Woman working on a computer. (Source: pxhere)

Workers are feeling burned out. So no wonder people got excited about a recent study from the UK claiming that companies that reduced weekly hours by 20% (a four-day work week) had much happier employees without losing revenue. Absent a four-day week, more Americans appear to be choosing to downshift by deciding to work part time, even if full-time work is available. This comes on top of the quiet-quitting and lying-flat trends.

It seems like the age of working less is upon us. Even before the pandemic, Americans were putting in fewer hours. In fact, we’ve never spent so little time at work. So if we’re burned out, maybe work isn’t the problem.

The aspiration to work less is as old as labor itself. In 1928, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren (he never had any) would only need to work 15-hour weeks because technology would do more of our jobs for us. While we still work much more than 15 hours a week, he wasn’t totally wrong. There is a downward trend in hours worked.

Technology has undoubtedly made labor more productive, with the latest example being the technology we adopted during the pandemic allowing more people to work from home, saving time on commuting, chit-chat and grooming. (Though Keynes surely never envisioned a smart phone that enables your boss to reach you at all hours of the day.)

A study from economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst estimate that in 1965, men age 21 to 65 worked for pay an average 51 hours a week; by 2003 it fell to just 39.9 hours, and it’s been pretty stable since then. Women remain a smaller part of the labor force, but many more are working outside the home since the 1960s and more work part time. The average woman’s work week increased from 20 to 26.3 hours by 2003 and has stayed relatively flat since then.  

The same study also measured work around the home, like household chores, and found technology such as better lawnmowers and dishwashers led to a big decrease there, too. When the economists included all forms of work, they estimate work hours declined 7.6 hours for men and 6.44 hours for women.

The benefit of less work is more leisure time. Men’s leisure hours increased almost 20% between 1965 and 2003. Women got 10% more leisure, though after rising it started declining again in the 1990s as helicopter parenting took hold and women spent more time caring for their children. Now working women spend nearly twice as much time with their children as they did in the 1960s.

One surprise: In 1965 men with less education worked more hours, but that trend has reversed and now higher earners tend to work more. By 2003, educated men worked five hours more a week than men without a high school degree. And that’s still true. In 2003, men with a high school education or less worked 3.6% fewer hours than more educated men; in 2018 the gap narrowed a bit to 1.6%. And perhaps the gap has now shrunk even more: since the pandemic, educated men are most likely to be the quiet quitters in their office.

Let’s be honest, if we’re shooting for a four-day work week, higher earners are the ones who can afford to work less. But that’s not realistic across the entire economy. Many hourly workers, who tend to earn less, can’t afford to reduce their hours by 20% a week. And most salaried workers probably can’t cut back that much either.

A four-day week would also damage the economy. Technology makes us more productive so we can make more in less time, but it’s unlikely that those productivity gains would be enough to compensate for 20% less work. The UK study suggests this is possible, but the study was fairly small and 88% of the companies that participated are in marketing, professional services, administration, or charities or nonprofits. It doesn’t scale to the larger economy. For most jobs, much less work means less output, which means fewer goods and services. It worsens the labor shortage and adds to inflation, making everyone poorer.

Even the companies in the UK study complained that the four-day work week caused a lot of confusion because the rest of the world worked for five days. And companies that let workers choose their days off had problems coordinating their employees.

So our economy isn’t ready to reduce work by 20%. But there’s a real trend of people working less and still feeling burned out. The question is, why? How are more people burning out if they are working less and have more leisure time than previous generations?

Maybe it’s because even as working hours have fallen, it feels like we’re never getting a genuine break. Parents do spend much more time doing child care than previous generations. We also spend our leisure time differently. Even if we have more of it, leisure may not be as restorative as it used to be. We use the time to stare at screens and play adrenalin-fueled video games, and less time reading or spending time with people in our community. These trends are associated with more anxiety and unhappiness for both teenagers and adults.

Perhaps how we spend our non-work time is what’s exhausting us — not the number of hours we are actually working. Working from home may make this worse, while we save time and may be more productive, we’re also on screens and alone more. Which is in many ways ironic. Keynes expected technology to free us from work. And it did give us less work and more free time, but it’s also making us feel more overworked and unhappy.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

  • Digital Detox Is a Fantasy: Sarah Green Carmichael
  • Robots Coming for Our Jobs Will Also Help Fire Us: Beth Kowitt
  • When Will US Workers Get Paid Leave? Try 2035: Kathryn Edwards

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering economics. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she is author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.”

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