People often complain that we are all working too hard and that human progress is pointless if we have to labor and strain to achieve our current lifestyles. They say we would be better off curtailing our desires and returning to some Edenic life with more time for ourselves. The problem is that Edenic life never existed. In fact, over the past millennium, humanity has been working less and less. And a thousand years is probably long enough to make the claim that working less is a trend, not a blip.
To understand working hours, it is important to recognize two points. First, households (some societies define households as containing only parents and children, while others extend the definition to cousins and nephews and so on) are the central economic units that should be discussed. Second, labor comes in two flavors: domestic work and market work. Domestic work includes food preparation, childcare, cleaning, or any other labor within the household. Market work generates money or goods to trade for any goods and services that the household does not produce. The “labor burden” on the household is the combined number of hours spent doing those two types of work.
Market and domestic labor can substitute one another. Children can go to kindergarten, and food can be bought as take-out. Likewise, clothes can be purchased from a factory, or they can be stitched at home. People tend to use the option that gets them the desired good or service with the least amount of work. As I will show below, the net effect of changes in those two forms of labor determines the total household labor supply. Or, to put it less formally, it determines how long people have to work to gain what they want. Once those two kinds of labor are added up, a declining trend in the total number of hours worked becomes apparent. Consider this report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston:
And that was just for the period between 1965 and 2003. A closer look at the 20th century suggests that market working hours fell for men and rose for women. The rise in female market working hours was precipitated by technological innovation and a concomitant decline in the number of domestic working hours. Domestic working hours fell greatly for women and, less dramatically, for men. The net effect of the four processes was that leisure hours rose, and total working hours fell, for both men and women.
In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the next century would usher in an age of prosperity. He also forecasted that people would work less and spend more time at leisure. Keynes turned out to be right. But many modern readers, who come across Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour workweek, wonder why they are still putting in 40 at the office. The answer is that the work we killed was the domestic labor done largely by women.
One author estimates that it took 60 hours a week of physical labor to keep a 1930 household working. Today, it takes perhaps 15 hours. Those numbers are not exact, but when you consider the washing machine, the gas oven, the vacuum cleaner, prepared food, and steam irons, the amount of household work eliminated is immense. One of Hans Rosling’s TED talks recounts how the washing machine brought him books. According to the Swedish physician, once the washing machine liberated his mother from laundry, she had more time to read to him. The South Korean economist Ha Joon Chang claims that the washing machine – by which he really means all domestic labor-saving technologies – changed the world more than the internet.
But labor alleviation did not begin in the 20th century. In her new book (The Fabric Of Civilisation came out in November 2020), the American writer Virginia Postrel estimates that it took 365 full days of work to spin enough thread to make a Viking sail. Days and days of work to create enough thread to weave a bandana and weeks to make a pair of jeans. The Vikings used the drop spindle to make thread – a basic technology that humans used for millennia. The spinning wheel, which partly mechanized the process, arrived in Europe sometime in the 11th or the 12th century A.D.
Then came the Industrial Revolution, first with the Spinning Jenny, which was followed by Crompton’s Mule and endless other derivatives. These machines progressively automated what was a horrendously time-consuming and nearly exclusively female domestic task for centuries. The economic historian Brad Delong has remarked that when women of any class are depicted in older literature, there is always reference to their spinning. By the time of Jane Austen’s novels in the late 18th and early 19th century A.D., spinning is never mentioned – it was all done in the factories by then.
We all have more leisure now than our forebears did. We have more time to do as we wish and fewer needs that force us to do as we must. But this wonderful outcome of human progress is obscured by the fact that, in large part, it is the household labor that has been automated away. Sure, the Roomba might not be a great leap forward, but it is just the latest iteration of a process that began a thousand years ago. And there is no sign of it ending.