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The Unequal Work Day: A Long-Term View


  • Dora L. Costa


I investigate how the distribution of daily hours worked among prime-aged men has changed since the 1890s by occupational and industrial group and by the hourly wage. I find that although hours of work have fallen for all workers, the decline was disproportionately large among the lowest paid workers. In the past hours worked were very unevenly distributed with the lowest paid workers working the longest day whereas today it is the highest paid workers who work the longest day. I argue that much of the change in the relative length of the work day can be accounted for by changes in the number of daily hours workers are willing to supply. I show that the unequal distribution of work hours in the past equalized income and that in recent times the unequal distribution of hours worked magnifies income disparities, suggesting that wage or wealth data may underestimate long-run improvements in the welfare of the lowest paid workers.

Suggested Citation

  • Dora L. Costa, 1998. "The Unequal Work Day: A Long-Term View," NBER Working Papers 6419, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6419
    Note: DAE LS

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Dora L. Costa, 1997. "Less of a Luxury: The Rise of Recreation since 1888," NBER Working Papers 6054, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Atack, Jeremy & Bateman, Fred, 1992. "How Long Was the Workday in 1880?," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 52(01), pages 129-160, March.
    3. Lundberg, Shelly J, 1985. "Tied Wage-Hours Offers and the Endogeneity of Wages," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 67(3), pages 405-410, August.
    4. Claudia Goldin & Robert A. Margo, 1992. "The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 107(1), pages 1-34.
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    Cited by:

    1. Haoming Liu & Yi Wen & Lijing Zhu, 2007. "Uniform Working Hours and Structural Unemployment," Annals of Economics and Finance, Society for AEF, vol. 8(1), pages 113-136, May.
    2. Tisdell, Clement A., 2006. "Effects of Markets on Poverty and Economic Inequality: Evolutionary and Ethical Perspectives," Social Economics, Policy and Development Working Papers 123543, University of Queensland, School of Economics.
    3. Wen, Yi & Zhu, Lijing & Liu, Haoming, 2001. "Uniform Working Hours: A Culprit of Structural Unemployment," Working Papers 01-20, Cornell University, Center for Analytic Economics.
    4. Nancy Folbre, 2009. "Time Use and Living Standards," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 93(1), pages 77-83, August.
    5. Pope, Clayne, 2009. "Measuring the distribution of material well-being: U.S. trends," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 56(1), pages 66-78, January.
    6. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1999. "The Returns to Skill in the United States across the Twentieth Century," NBER Working Papers 7126, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Lonnie Golden, 2009. "A Brief History of Long Work Time and the Contemporary Sources of Overwork," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 84(2), pages 217-227, January.
    8. Robert A. Margo, 1999. "The History of Wage Inequality in America, 1820 to 1970," Economics Working Paper Archive wp_286, Levy Economics Institute.
    9. Robert A. Margo, 2000. "The History of Wage Inequality in America, 1920 to 1970," Macroeconomics 0004035, EconWPA.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J22 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Time Allocation and Labor Supply
    • N30 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - General, International, or Comparative


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