A Brief History of Long Work Time and the Contemporary Sources of Overwork

11 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2008 Last revised: 3 Mar 2009

See all articles by Lonnie Golden

Lonnie Golden

Pennsylvania State University - Abington College; Economic Policy Institute; Project for Middle Class Renewal

Date Written: January 1, 2008


What are some of the key historical trends and patterns in hours of work per worker in US? What forces and counterforces determine the length of individuals' work hours - economic, social-psychological-cultural, organizational and institutional? How much of the trend in work hours may be attributable to workers' preferences, external incentives and employers' constraints? What motivates employees to desire to work longer work hours? Can work become overwork - risking harm to workers, families or economies - or workaholism, an unforced addiction to incessant work activity? The first part of this article traces the history of the length of working hours and its recent polarization. The second develops a multi-disciplinary model to identify the motivations behind more workers desiring longer hours. To the extent such preferences are adaptable, individuals' desired work hours will stem from the weighted contribution of its five sources: (1) current real wage rates; (2) forward-looking, potential wage trajectories;(3) relative status conferred upon individuals by hours of labor; (4) intrinsic rewards, process benefits or amenities acquired through work; (5) hours demanded by the employer, reflecting structural constraints. The latter term makes explicit that employers and their established conditions of work have indeed influenced the course of long run trends labor supply and in work time structures. The final section briefly suggests policies that might curb the persistence of long hours by addressing its economic and social sources.

Keywords: Work hours, working time, overwork, labor supply, labor history

JEL Classification: J21, J23, J28, I12, N21

Suggested Citation

Golden, Lonnie, A Brief History of Long Work Time and the Contemporary Sources of Overwork (January 1, 2008). Journal of Business Ethics, pp. 217-227, January 2009, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1084323

Lonnie Golden (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University - Abington College ( email )

1600 Woodland Rd.
Abington, PA 19001
United States
215-881-7596 (Phone)
215-881-7333 (Fax)

Economic Policy Institute ( email )

1660 L Street NW, Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20036
United States

Project for Middle Class Renewal ( email )

1408 W. Gregory Dr.
Urbana, IL 61801
United States

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