Major changes in American work-life have occurred twice in the past century, each time after a cataclysmic event. The Great Depression ushered in the Rooseveltian labor laws - minimum wages, premium pay for overtime, Social Security and many others. World War II brought women into the non-agricultural workforce like never before, and its long-term effects led us to approach, but hardly achieve gender equality of worktime. What has the COVID-19 pandemic done so far? More importantly, will it have long-lasting effects, as did these earlier shocks?
As in every post-World War II recession, in 2020 unemployment rose and worktime fell - by about two hours per week, similar to what we saw in the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Also as usual, the fraction of adult Americans working or seeking work fell during the pandemic - by nearly 3 percentage points (7 million people). But surprisingly, even now, with the unemployment rate nearing its pre-COVID low, only one in three of these people is back at work or looking for work.
The resurgence of interest in working so far into an economic recovery is unusually slow by historical standards. Many workers have discovered that they don't wish to work as long, work as frequently, or even work at all. We could see a long-term effect of the pandemic in a reduced fraction of Americans interested in working and in desires for shorter hours among those who do work.
With lockdowns and teleworking, people had more time for other things throughout the pandemic. If nothing else, the average telecommuter saved three hours per week by staying home. These represented a "time gift" to workers. My calculations based on U.S. time-use data show that, during the COVID recession, workers spent one of these three freed-up hours in additional sleep each week, another watching one more hour of television each week.
Someday the U.S. labor market will return to some semblance of normal; but what will that normal be? Higher-wage workers have discovered that they do not need to be in the office every day. This discovery will lead them to spend less time commuting. Will that cut in commuting time continue to be spent in additional sleep and more leisure? Or might people devote their time gift to more family time or more time volunteering? We don't know; but one very likely beneficial long-term effect is that reduced commuting time provides workers more choice about how to spend their time.
Before the pandemic Americans were the world champions of work time among rich countries - longer work hours by far than the Germans or French, longer than Britons and even longer than the proverbially hard-working Japanese. It wasn't always that way - in the 1970s we were average among rich countries. The pandemic may have shocked Americans into re-evaluating their conflicting desires for more income and more free time, causing us to continue working a bit less, and to seek more time to ourselves. Reduced total work time is a possible long-term effect. The pandemic might just be what Americans needed to shock them out of their workaholism.
There are economic costs if people choose to continue working less. The current shortage of labor will disappear, but it will do so because some workers will be lured back to work with higher wages, as we're already seeing. Employers won't be happy; but given American beliefs in free choice, they should applaud workers freely choosing a bit more leisure time over a bit more money.
It might not be possible to implement these choices - to achieve the additional non-work time that people seem to want - without government action like that in the 1930s. The pandemic is unlikely immediately to generate this kind of action at this time of government gridlock and extreme partisanship. But if workers' interest in more leisure time and less work continues after the pandemic is long past, one can well imagine government-mandated paid vacations of three or more weeks for all workers, similar to those in most industrialized countries - even countries that are far less wealthy than the U.S., such as South Korea.
During the pandemic, many workers have developed a taste for additional leisure and less work time. If this development is more than a response to the temporary exigencies of the pandemic, the U.S. could see a change in what workers do and how they are treated that would be as important as those that resulted from the two previous major crises of the past 100 years. I hope that it does.
Daniel S. Hamermesh is a distinguished scholar at Barnard College and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Texas at Austin and Royal Holloway University of London. He is the author of "Spending Time" (Oxford Univ. Press, 2019), "Beauty Pays" (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011), and over 100 refereed articles in scholarly journals on such subjects as wages, employment, sleep, suicide and others.