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Are Americans Overworked?

Economic Trends


A popular view is that a baleful trend afflicts American workers: Whereas many European workers have been curtailing their workweeks, their U.S. counterparts have often been forced to work longer hours just to maintain their living standards. In other words, Americans are working more and enjoying life and leisure less.

Not so, claim Kristin Roberts and Peter Rupert of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Their analysis of survey data of American families from 1976 through 1988 confirms that the average American is indeed spending more time working for pay than in the past. But once they add "home work" to the equation--that is, such activities as cooking meals, laundry, home maintenance, and child care--they find that most of the increase simply reflects a shift from time spent in home production to time spent in paid market work.

Market-work hours of married couples in which both partners work for pay full time, for example, rose by three hours a week from 1976 to 1988 (chart). But home-work hours fell by three hours, so total weekly work hours for such couples remained about 109.5. In households with nonworking wives, total work hours also stayed relatively stable, at about 82.5 a week over the period.

The difference between total work hours of working couples and those of couples with nonworking wives, of course, reflects the fact that women in male-worker couples are occupied only with household work. In 1988, such wives spent an average 32.2 hours a week doing home work, double the time working wives spent at such chores. But the latter also spent an average 41.4 hours in market jobs.

Roberts and Rupert conclude that rather than forgoing leisure hours, Americans are mainly substituting market work for home work--a trend fostered by smaller families, labor-saving appliances, and other developments.BY GENE KORETZ

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