The middle class time squeeze



Time is the ultimate scarcity. It is also the great equalizer. We each have exactly 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and 365 days per year. The last two centuries have seen considerable changes in the number of years available to us and the way we spend them. Life expectancy varies but has risen on average, providing greater leisure that is primarily enjoyed later in life. Additionally, increased productivity has allowed workers in high-income countries to reduce work hours, making more time available for themselves and their families. By these metrics, we are living in the most time-rich period in modern history.

More recently, progress toward greater time prosperity has stalled in the U.S. and has been unevenly distributed. Annual worktime for the average prime-age American has not fallen significantly over the last forty years, diverging from trends in Western Europe and Scandinavia. Not only do Americans work longer hours than those in other advanced nations, but the gap in longevity between those with higher and lower incomes has widened in the U.S. Finally, households are increasingly dependent upon the incomes of two earners, leaving them with limited time for other activities such as family care, sleep, and leisure.

Progress toward greater time prosperity has stalled in the U.S. and has been unevenly distributed…
Not only do Americans work longer hours than those in other advanced nations, but the gap in longevity between those with higher and lower incomes has widened in the U.S.

This paper first traces the historical evolution of working time in the U.S. and how we compare to other high-income countries. We document that over the long term, hours of work have declined in most advanced countries, but in recent decades, the U.S. stands out as a country where that decline has ceased and where, as a result, Americans work far more than those in other rich countries.

We then turn to what we call “the middle-class time squeeze.” That squeeze has been wrought mainly by the failure of many policies and practices surrounding work and family life to adapt to the rising need for families to have a second earner.

In response to these developments, we suggest a number of new policies:

  • Reductions in the standard work week or work year
  • More paid leave
  • Mid-career breaks for family care or life-long learning
  • Later retirement
  • Subsidized childcare
  • Better alignment of school and work hours
  • More telecommuting and investments in transit infrastructure

These policy adjustments would be responsive to the many changes that have occurred over the last half century: greater affluence making more leisure affordable, changes in women’s roles requiring new ways to balance market work and work in the home, deindustrialization requiring more midcareer retraining, rising longevity enabling later retirement, and greater lifetime inequality in income and time that can be addressed in part by a reformed social insurance system.

Executive summary

  • Worktime has declined since the end of the Industrial Revolution, and this combined with increasing lifespans has resulted in large increases in the amount of total leisure the average individual can expect to enjoy over their lifetime. In recent decades, however, declines in worktime for employed individuals have slowed or stopped in the U.S. even as work hours in many other high-income countries have declined. The average American worker went from working a few hundred hours less than the average French or German worker to a few hundred hours more in the span of a few decades.
  • The working time gap between the U.S. and Europe is explained by both a higher number of vacation weeks in Europe and a longer workweek in the U.S. The U.S is the only OECD country with no statutory minimum level of annual leave, and the vacation time offered by many U.S. employers falls below the minimum level of leave offered in many other countries. Many Scandinavian and Western European countries have obtained shorter standard workweeks through legislation or collective bargaining.
  • The stability of average work hours combined with the increasing proportion of couples who are dual earners means that families are collectively putting in more work hours now than in the recent past. The fraction of couples who are dual earners has risen from about half to 70% over the last four decades. The largest increase within this category has been among couples in which both the mother and the father work full-time. The average middle-class married couple with children now works a combined 3,446 hours annually, an increase of more than 600 hours—or 15 additional weeks of full-time work—since 1975.  
  • The overwhelming majority of middle-class income growth over this period was due to increases in women’s labor force attachment, work hours, and hourly earnings. In the process of addressing a perceived money squeeze, many middle-class families now face a time squeeze. But because there is an upper limit on hours worked, further improvements in middle class incomes may be limited unless the adults in these families can earn more per hour.    
  • Work and family responsibilities tend to peak between the ages of 30 and 44, putting young and middle-aged adults under particular time pressure. Time in nonmarket (household) work has declined for women and increased for men since the 1960s, though women still perform much more work in the household. Both mothers and fathers have increased their time spent caring for children since the 1960s. Together, fulltime dual-earners spend a combined 139 hours per week in total work—defined as market work, home production, childcare, and adult care—compared to 125 hours per week among couples with a fulltime employed father and stay-at-home mother 
  • Policies and practices surrounding work and family life have not kept pace with changes in women’s economic roles. Individuals are expected to work most intensively at the age when they have the greatest family responsibilities, with limited options to take time off for family care or retraining. The expense of childcare is high relative to middle-class incomes and school hours are not well aligned to typical work hours, making it challenging for many parents, particularly mothers, to work full-time. Paid family leave and flexible work arrangements, such as the ability to work from home, are still unavailable to many workers. 

Read the full report.