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Shorter hours for men add to strains on UK labour market

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A shift towards shorter working hours for men has been a big factor in the labour shortages seen in the UK since the pandemic, according to analysis published on Monday by the Office for National Statistics.

Typical working hours have been in steady decline for decades, trending down from an average of 33.1 hours per week among all those employed in 1998 to 31.8 hours in 2022. But the fall caused by Covid lockdowns was much sharper — and had been only partially reversed by the end of 2022, with average weekly hours still 0.3 hours lower than in 2019.

The ONS said that while the change was relatively small, it was equivalent to having 310,000 fewer people in employment. Combined with a post-pandemic rise of 580,000 in the number of older people who were outside the workforce, “this drop in average weekly hours is significant in terms of its quantitative impact on labour supply”, the agency added.

Post-pandemic working hours were shorter overall even though a rising proportion of women were working full-time — possibly helped by the greater opportunities to work flexibly, the ONS said.

This is partly a reflection of longer-term changes in the mix of people in the workforce. Young people, who tend to work longer hours, have become more likely to stay in full-time education. Older people, who often prefer to work less, account for a growing share of the workforce. Women are still more likely to work part-time than men, so their rising share of employment has brought down the average.  

But the ONS drew attention to a “significant” drop in the average hours of men working full-time in all age groups — and in particular among those aged 25 to 49.

The trend is not confined to the UK. The European Central Bank has called attention to a similar post-pandemic decline in working hours in the eurozone, although it is not clear whether this was due to lifestyle changes or to companies hanging on to scarce staff even in slack periods.

Louise Murphy, economist at the Resolution Foundation think-tank, said that while greater flexibility had clearly helped women to combine work with caring responsibilities, there was no single explanation for men cutting their working week.

The ONS analysis shows that the long-term decline in hours has been sharpest among low paid workers in administrative, manual or service sector jobs — with higher paid managers bucking the trend.

Murphy said recent research by the Foundation suggested some men were choosing to work shorter hours, provided they could still pay the bills, because it was “the only way to get work-life balance” given the prevalence of antisocial evening or weekend shifts in low paid sectors.  

“Working hours are just as important as economic inactivity [in explaining] the labour supply and growth over the last few years,” she added.

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