The length of the work day fell sharply between the 1880s when the typical worker labored ten hours a day six days a week and 1920 when his counterpart worked an eight hour day six days a week. By 1940 the typical work schedule was eight hours a day five days a week. Although further reductions in work time largely took the form of increases in vacations, holidays, sick days, personal leave, and earlier retirement, time diary studies suggest that the work day has continued to trend downwards to less than eight hours a day. This decline in work hours, unmeasured by such common indicators of well-being as income per capita, surely represents one of the larger increases in the standard of living during this century.
Since mid-century the primary beneficiaries of the relatively small declines in the length of the work day and work week have been lower paid workers. Robinson and Godbey (1997: 217) note that Americans with a college education work longer hours than Americans with less formal education and, to a lesser extent, those with larger incomes or in professional occupations work the longest hours. Coleman and Pencavel (1993a,b) find that increases in weekly hours of work for the college educated and declines for those with a high school education or less have been ongoing since 1940.
Although the work day declined sharply before 1940, less is known about the distribution of hours worked prior to this year, the first in which a census contained a question on weekly hours worked. Indirect evidence that the distribution of work hours narrowed is available from national consumer expenditure surveys dating back as far as 1888. These show that differences in recreational expenditures, and hence probably leisure hours, by social class narrowed sharply before 1940(Costa 1997), implying that inequality of living standards fell. In contrast, theexisting data on trends in wage inequality prior to 1940 (although sometimes contradictory) suggests that wage inequality declined only slightly from the end of the nineteenth century to 1940 and never fell below today’s levels (Goldin and Margo 1992). If the lowest paid workers worked the longest hours in the past whereas today it is the most highly paid who work the longest hours, then wage or wealth data may underestimate long-run improvements in the welfare of the lowest income workers and may present a skewed picture of recent trends in the inequality of living standards.