The Unequal Work Day: A Long-Term View

Dora L. Costa

NBER Working Paper No. 6419
Issued in February 1998
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Labor Studies

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.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w6419

Published: American Economic Review, Vol.88, no.2 (May 1998): 330-334. citation courtesy of

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