Why do we work less?

I am sympathetic to the argument by Robert Frank and others that competition for positional goods is a major factor driving our behaviour. The natural outcome of this is that we should want to work more, or at least more than anyone else. However, recent trends in working hours do not neatly fit with this story.

When Jared Diamond proposed that agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race, he was referring primarily to work hours. Diamond writes:

[T]he average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

There are plenty of studies which support this view. Hans-Joachim Voth summarises the results of a series of studies in his book Time and Work in England 1750-1830 and notes that worUking hours increased from an average 4.9 hours per day in hunter-gatherer communities to 7.4 hours per day in mixed societies through to 10.9 hours per day in advanced sedentary agricultural societies.

Voth also describes how work hours increased further around the time of the Industrial Revolution, with the average hours worked per year by a London resident increasing from 2,288 hours per year in the 1750s to 3,366 hours per year in 1800-1803 and in 1830. This equates to around 64 hours per week.

But work hours peaked around that time. Today, workers in the United States work, on average, around 35 hours per week. With the exception of South Korea, almost no developed country has an average work week of more than 40 hours. Work hours have generally been declining for over 150 years.

Why, with competition for positional goods such as entry to good schools and neighbourhoods, are we working less? The story about competition for positional goods needs to accommodate the fact that while we still work more than hunter-gatherers, recent trends are towards working less.


  1. I think we need to know more about the data (e.g., Does this include people with only part-time work too?).  I’ve seen conflicting reports indicating different trends.

    At least in America, I think it’s a dubious claim to say that the average work-week is around 35 hours.  Anecdotally, no one I know with a full-time job works less than 45-50 hours per week.  I live in a big city, so my perception may be skewed, but I still find the claim that the average work-week for a person with a full-time job is 35 hours hard to believe. 

    Anyway, I’m also sympathetic to Frank’s claim and my own experiences confirm that the unchecked quest for relative position often makes the workplace more miserable than it needs to be.  How do we remedy that problem?  That, I’m not sure of.

  2. Those who try to get to good schools are not working less. We are working less on average (!) which is a very different thing.

    Although the fertility decline seems to a be a worldwide phenomenon, the less productive ones are still way above the replacement rate. Whatever caused the replacement of the unproductive with the productive (which later later culminated in the Industrial Revolution—as per Clark’s book), the direction now seems to be reversed and it appears we are headed for Malthus Redux. 

  3. Jason, your argument implies that positional goods is something new, but weren’t they out there for the most (if not all) civilized history of humanity? Frank’s theory still might work if we find the evidence that positional competition was more fierce in those days when people worked longer hours.

    1. There is a second element to the dynamics, and that is the ability to convert work hours into positional goods. Even where they may have been available in the past, there needs to be an ability to acquire them through working longer hours.

      On the idea that competition might have been more fierce previously, I suppose the question is why?

      1. I was not trying to say that Frank theory can explain why the number of work hours increased from the time of hunters-gatherers to the time of industrial revolution and then dropped in the modern times. There were tons of other factors: demographic, technological perhaps. I am not an expert in this particular area. All I was trying to say that Frank’s view can be consistent with the decreased number of work hours.
        By the way, Frank’s ideas are not that new: they just follow Veblen’s thoughts on the matter. Frank is just connects it with the externalities model and suggests the standard treatment for negative externalities, which is taxing. 

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