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How Many Hours In A Workweek?

Economic Trends


Maybe enough to sink productivity

Are Americans spending more time on the job than they used to? Although the question has important implications for the nation's economic performance, the answer isn't obvious.

The Labor Dept.'s survey of business establishments, for example, shows that the average workweek has shortened during the postwar period--from more than 39 hours in the 1950s and early '60s to less than 35 hours in the '90s. (The factory workweek has risen during the current expansion, but manufacturing accounts for only 15% of payroll workers, down from 33% in the 1950s). And the growing use of temporary help and part-timers suggests that many workers may be logging fewer hours on a weekly or annual basis than they would like.

The problem is that this picture does not jibe with workers' accounts. The Labor Dept. survey of households shows that the average worker put in 39.2 hours last year, up from 37.7 in 1982. And according to polls conducted by Louis Harris & Associates, the median number of hours worked per week in the U.S. has risen steadily from 40.3 in 1973 to 50.6 in 1995.

Indeed, a recent Labor Dept. analysis concludes that the average annual number of hours put in by working Americans rose sharply from 1976 to 1993. For men, the increment came to 100 hours, or 2.5 weeks a year. For women, it totaled 233 days, or nearly six weeks.

Reconciling these different portrayals of work effort isn't easy. Part of the explanation may be a rise in the ranks of those holding more than one job. Such workers currently number 7.9 million and have surged from 4.9% of the labor force in 1979 to 6.2% today.

More important, contends Stephen S. Roach of Morgan Stanley & Co., is the likelihood than many service employers are underestimating the hours worked by their employees. "Lots of people," he says, "are putting in more hours at the office or at their home computers than they used to--but employers still figure the 35-hour week is the norm."

Although much of the rise may reflect heavier workloads imposed on workers in an era of computerization and "lean and mean" management, many workers are also logging longer paid hours to offset scant real wage growth and compensate for possible future job loss. Whatever the cause, Roach notes that the implications for the nation's productivity record are profound. That's because productivity numbers are based on workweek reports derived from the Labor Dept.'s establishment survey rather than its household survey.

If the household numbers on weekly hours worked are correct, says Roach, productivity gains in the service sector would be even more anemic than currently reported. "Services output may indeed be underestimated, as many experts claim," he observes, "but so apparently is the input of hours required to produce that output."BY GENE KORETZReturn to top

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Foreigners still crave U.S. issues

With the dollar down nearly 10% against the yen recently and dipping against several other currencies, some financial market observers worry that foreigners are about to lose their appetite for Treasury securities--causing bond rates to surge higher. After all, foreign central banks and private investors purchased a record $270 billion worth of Treasuries last year, which is double the amount of net government debt issued.

Although some slowdown in buying is likely, economist Mitchell J. Held of Smith Barney Inc. isn't worried. He notes that the gap between U.S. and foreign bond rates remains sizable, even though some overseas rates have risen recently. Moreover, the trade-weighted dollar is still within 1% of its late-April high, and the current political turmoil in Europe promises to enhance the attractiveness of Treasury securities and other dollar-denominated assets to overseas investors for some time to come.

On the supply side, the U.S. deficit is expected to shrink to $65 billion or $75 billion this fiscal year, which means that net issuance will plummet to just $50 billion or so. That's just $3 billion more than foreigners bought in the first two months of this year alone. Furthermore, the government will shell out more than $200 billion in interest this fiscal year and next, and a lot of that will inevitably be rolled over into Treasuries.

In short, says Held, "supply and demand conditions for the Treasury market still look extremely favorable."BY GENE KORETZReturn to top

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