Reduction of life hours of work since 1850: estimates for Dutch males

The number of hours men work during their lives has almost halved since mid-19th century. Jaap de Koning has studied the development of the number of hours Dutch males work in their lifetime. Estimates of the life hours of work are made for ten-year birth cohorts between 1840 and 1950. The number of hours men work during their lives gradually diminished. Men born in 1840 worked on average 118 thousands hours, while it is only 67 thousands hours for the 1950 cohort. So, it almost halved. As a percentage of the total number of hours available to a person, the decline is even stronger: from 23 percent for the 1840 birth cohort to percent for the 1950 birth cohort. This is due to the increase in life expectancy since the mid-19th century.

Technological development is often seen as the major driving force behind the decrease in the life hours of work. However, there is quite some evidence that the extremely long working hours that were customary in the 19th century were not an economic necessity. When the working week exceeds 60 hours, an additional hour does not lead to more production. And in case of very long working hours the effect might even be negative. Perhaps the most important reason why employers were reluctant to reduce working time and the government hesitated to implement legislation forcing employers to do so, was fear for what people would do with more free time. Unbalanced power relations made it possible for employers to impose long extremely working hours on workers. The emergence of the labour movement changed that.

It is unlikely that in the future annual working time will be further reduced. Neither do we expect shorter work lives. At the moment the tendency is that people work longer as life expectancy continues to increase. It is more difficult to say what will happen with employment rates. Most economists think that in the long run technological development will have no negative effects on the macro employment rate. Other scientists believe that the new developments in technology are more universal than past developments and will therefore lead to more employment destruction than employment creation. If this scenario comes true it will not lead to a general reduction in the number of hours people work in their lifetime, but to higher unemployment among some groups.