Who Works Hardest? Psst, Working Wives

WHEN Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland economists published a study on ''The Myth of the Overworked American,'' it prompted a stir among the bank staff. It wasn't because the report popped a myth. It was because employees were making comparisons on how many hours men worked on the job and at home, versus how many hours women worked at their paid jobs and doing household chores.

''Both men and women are mad at me for writing this,'' says Peter Rupert, an economist at the bank who authored the ''Economic Commentary'' with researcher Kristin Roberts.

Men were fussing because the study showed that even when their wives are in the labor force the amount of work men do at home (meal preparation, laundry, child care, home maintenance, and so on) has not increased much. Between 1976 and 1988 -- years of strength in the feminist movement -- men upped their ''home work'' from 6 hours to 7.3 hours per week in 1988.

''I'm not going to take this home and show my wife,'' one colleague told Mr. Rupert.

Women were ticked because they feel that they are working too hard. Some professionals in the bank office put in a 60-hour week on the job and go home to look after the children and clean up the house, Rupert notes.

The study, however, also shows that home work put in by married women in the labor force has declined from 20.2 hours a week to 15.9 hours between 1976 and 1988. That doesn't necessarily mean that houses are dirtier, or children neglected -- though it could in some cases. It reflects, says Rupert, a partial substitution between work in the market and work at home. Some working couples hire day care, microwave frozen food, eat out more, and employ a host of labor-saving home appliances.

To reach these conclusions, Rupert and Ms. Roberts used statistics for several thousand individuals and families tracked and surveyed over time by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When children in the original families grew up and started their own families, these were included in the study.

Their study's prime goal was to examine the frequent claim that workers are increasingly faced with the unpleasant option of either working longer hours -- and enjoying life less -- or consuming less and having fewer material comforts. The study finds that if market and home work are combined, that claim of longer hours is not true. A husband-wife team, both working, put in a combined 109.4 hours per week of work in the home and office in 1976 and 109.5 hours in 1988. If the wife is out of the labor force, the comparative team hours are 83 and 82.4.

In other words, the assumption of declining leisure is a falacy.

If market work alone is counted, working hours have changed a bit. Husbands with wives working full time worked 44.8 hours in 1988, up a little from 44 hours in 1976; the wives worked 41.4 hours in 1988, up from 39.2 in 1976. In the case of married couples with wives out of the labor force, the husbands worked 44.2 hours in 1988, almost the same as the 44.6 hours in 1976.

Unfortunately, Roberts and Rupert did not have later data to see if corporate downsizing and other efforts to make business leaner in the 1990s have meant longer hours for employees.

None of these studies of working hours can be considered the last word. One difficulty is how you define work. One person described leisure as what an individual wants to do and work as what he or she has to do. But if a husband comes home from his paying job and plays with the kids for a couple of hours, is that child-care time work or is that leisure? If the wife loves to scrabble around in the garden, is that work or play?

What prompted the fuss at the Cleveland Fed were the hours-of-work comparisons for wives and husbands. Where husbands have paid jobs, the proportion of their wives working has risen from 46.6 percent in 1976 to 61.3 percent in 1988. Many more women are now trying to balance paid work with home work.

When the the two types of work are combined, the study shows husbands in single-earner households worked 50.2 hours in 1988, their wives 32.2 hours at home. But working wives spent a combined 57.3 hours in 1988, their husbands 52.2 hours.

But men can take comfort in that these numbers are just averages. They could claim to be above-average hard workers.

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