Press Releases

News from EPI For most workers, wages have not kept pace with work hours since 1979, new EPI paper finds

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Contact: Phoebe Silag or Donte Donald, 202-775-8810

Though the majority of workers substantially increased their work hours between 1979 and 2007, their hourly wages grew modestly, a new EPI paper finds. In Vast majority of wage earners are working harder, and for not much more: Trends in U.S. work hours and wages over 1979-2007, EPI President Lawrence Mishel examines the growth of work hours and real hourly and annual wages by gender and wage fifth from 1979 to 2007. He finds that for the bottom 60 percent of wage earners, growth in real annual wages occurred during that time period largely because workers were working more hours each year.

The average worker worked 1,868 hours in 2007, an increase of 181 hours from the 1979 work year of 1,687 hours. Annual hours grew 20.3 percent among women and 4.4 percent among men from 1979 to 2007.

Generally, the lower a worker’s wages, the more the worker’s annual hours increased. Hours worked by workers in the lowest fifth of the wage distribution increased 22.0 percent between 1979 and 2007, far faster than among workers with higher wages, and their hourly  wages grew just 7.7 percent (with most of the wage growth occurring from 1995 to 2000). Middle-wage workers’ hours increased 10.9 percent, while their real hourly wages grew 15.8 percent. (Excluding the late-1990s boom, however, the total real wage growth for this group was 5.3 percent, or about 0.25 percent growth annually.) Hours worked by the top 5 percent of earners grew 7.6 percent, while their real hourly wages increased 30.2 percent. These trends contradict a view often expressed by commentators that the working class had withdrawn from work over the three decades preceding the financial crisis.

“The data suggest that Americans started working more hours in part as a coping strategy to ensure some income growth in the face of very slow wage growth,” Mishel said. “In contrast, wages grew quite quickly for top wage earners. Workers, especially those in the bottom sixty percent, have been working much more but have had very modest gains in real hourly wages. Policymakers need to focus on improving job quality and accelerating wage growth so that workers can benefit from economic growth moving forward.”