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A short history of working hours

The U.K. work week since the year 1260

The FRED graph above shows average weekly hours worked per worker in the United Kingdom since the year 1260.

Clearly, measuring the work week is a long-standing tradition for the British. It is also a long-standing challenge for economists, but accurate measures matter for at least two reasons: First, hours worked determine the time available for leisure and, thus, matter for welfare. Second, the measurement of productivity depends crucially on the measurement of hours worked.

Consider the Industrial Revolution in England, which is generally dated as the second half of the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century. Did this Industrial Revolution occur because of innovations and technological progress or because workers were working longer hours than before? The graph suggests that between 1750 and 1800, workers in the U.K. worked more than ever, indeed. So, innovations and technological progress may not be the only drivers of the Industrial Revolution.

The decline in hours worked in the U.K. since the first half of the nineteenth century is also remarkable and similar to what is observed in most of today’s developed economies. To get a sense of the importance of this decline, note that hours worked in 2016 are half what they were in 1830. We don’t show it here, but real gross domestic product per worker rose 12 times in the same time frame. Simply put, since 1830, U.K. workers are able to work half the time but produce 12 times as much.

History buffs out there may want to look a bit farther back at the steep decline in the fourteenth century, the time of the bubonic plague. For some dismal science on that period, check out this post.

How this graph was created: Simply search for and select “Average Weekly Hours Worked in the United Kingdom.”

Suggested by Guillaume Vandenbroucke.

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