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News from EPI Examination of work hours reveals two labor markets: Some people are working more than ever, while others struggle to get any work at all

In a comprehensive new paper, EPI Director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Valerie Wilson and Economic Analyst Janelle Jones examine trends in annual work hours among prime-age workers between 1979 and 2016, providing a breakdown of how these trends diverge along the lines of gender, race, and class. They find that prime-age adults (ages 25-54) seem to be increasingly separating into two groups: those who are employed and working more hours than ever before, and a growing number who have fallen out of the labor market—or cannot get into it at all.

“With wages practically stagnant, almost all of the growth in annual earnings that we’ve seen since 1979 has been because people are working longer hours,” said Wilson. “Unfortunately, with a fixed number of hours in a day—and with workers given little control over their schedules—there are limits to how far people can boost their annual pay by working longer hours. “

In their analysis, Wilson and Jones introduce a measure of labor market disconnection separate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Labor Force Participation Rate, which more effectively shows how many and what groups of workers are completely disconnected from the labor market—i.e., not working at all for an entire year.

“The fact that people of all races work similar hours once they get into the labor market shows that this is not a story of differences in work ethic or personal responsibility,” said Jones. “We also have a broad swath of prime working age people who face real barriers that keep them out of the labor market completely.”

On average, prime-age adults worked 7.8 percent more hours per year in 2016 than in 1979, but there is heterogeneity in the experiences of different workers—both in hours worked per year and in changes over time—based on gender, race, ethnicity, and level of pay. Key findings include:

  • The share of prime-age men who did not work at all over the course of a year has nearly doubled, from 6.3 percent in 1979 to 11.9 percent in 2016. On the other hand, the share of prime-age women who did not work declined from 29.8 percent in 1979 to 24.1 percent in 2016, falling as low as 19.4 percent in 1999.
  • Black men are working fewer hours today than in 1979, and fewer hours than white and Hispanic men—but mostly because they have a much harder time finding jobs at all. Once they enter the labor market, the number of hours black men work is closer to their white and Hispanic peers than overall averages would suggest.
  • Black men are roughly twice as likely as white and Hispanic men to be non-earners. 21.1 percent of prime-age black men did not work at all in 2016. About a quarter of black men with a high school diploma and nearly 50 percent of those with less than a high school diploma are non-earners.
  • Among prime-age women, Hispanic women are by far the most likely to be non-earners—31.4 percent in 2016, compared with 22.2 percent of black women and 21.5 percent of white women.
  • Prime-age adults who typically earn the least and work the fewest hours have increased their work hours the most since 1979. The bottom fifth of all prime age wage earners increased annual hours by 24.3 percent, compared with 9.4 percent among the middle fifth and 3.6 percent among the top fifth.