Having leisure time is now a marker for poverty, not riches

In Post-Industrious Society: Why Work Time will not Disappear for our Grandchildren, researchers from Oxford's Centre for Time Use Research argue that there has been a radical shift in the relationship between leisure, work and income. Where once leisure time was a mark of affluence, now it is a marker for poverty. The richer you are, the more likely you are to work long hours; while the poorer you are, the fewer hours you are likely to work every week.

The researchers theorise multiple causes for this. Poor people are more likely to be underemployed and unable to get the work-hours they want (and need) to support themselves. Rich people are likely to work in jobs that disproportionately advance and reward workers who put in overtime, so a 10% increase in hours worked generates more than 10% in expected career-gains.

They also claim that rich workers are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, but I'm skeptical of this -- I think that relative to unskilled workers doing at-will 0-hours temp work whose every move is constrained and scripted by their employers, this is probably true, but I don't think that the white-collar world is producing a lot of people who think that their work is meaningful and rewarding.

In today’s advanced economies things are different. Overall working hours have fallen over the past century. But the rich have begun to work longer hours than the poor. In 1965 men with a college degree, who tend to be richer, had a bit more leisure time than men who had only completed high school. But by 2005 the college-educated had eight hours less of it a week than the high-school grads. Figures from the American Time Use Survey, released last year, show that Americans with a bachelor’s degree or above work two hours more each day than those without a high-school diploma. Other research shows that the share of college-educated American men regularly working more than 50 hours a week rose from 24% in 1979 to 28% in 2006, but fell for high-school dropouts. The rich, it seems, are no longer the class of leisure.

There are a number of explanations. One has to do with what economists call the “substitution effect”. Higher wages make leisure more expensive: if people take time off they give up more money. Since the 1980s the salaries of those at the top have risen strongly, while those below the median have stagnated or fallen. Thus rising inequality encourages the rich to work more and the poor to work less.

Nice work if you can get out [The Economist]

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(Image: Lonely Hammock, Micky Zlimen, CC-BY-SA)

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