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College-educated men in the prime of their lives are turning away from their high-pressure jobs by working fewer hours


The Great Resignation, quiet-quitting, and a looming recession have caused major changes to the labor force. First, workers quit in droves due to a pandemic-induced burnout. Then, some of the ones who stayed quietly started doing the minimum work required.

And more recently have come mass layoffs. The job cuts that started in the second half of 2022 have seeped into 2023, threatening workers across a number of industries, especially tech.

The latest trend is young men with at least bachelor’s degrees spending fewer hours working, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research earlier this month found. They spent an average of 14 hours less annually on the job between 2019 and 2022.

The decline was far less over the same period for similarly qualified women, who worked three fewer hours. 

“Men making good money and in the prime of their lives are turning away from their high pressure jobs by working fewer hours and it could be because they’re ‘re-evaluating their priorities,’” the report said. 

The report mentions that the desire for work-life balance may play out as quiet quitting, in which workers merely coast on the job rather than putting in much effort. More people adapting to flexible working arrangements like working from home may also end up spending fewer hours working, particularly if they can afford to do it.

Working less may also translate into less chance of burnout and more time for hobbies and interests outside jobs. 

The hours worked also dropped by eight hours on average annually for men who had some form of college education, even if they didn’t complete their degrees. 

Overall, people in all education categories worked 11 fewer hours per year on average from 2019 to 2022, the study said. 

The study’s authors argue that since the decline in working hours continued through 2022, it cannot be solely attributed to pandemic-related factors like sickness. During the height of the pandemic, many people who were ill had to take significant time off and therefore reduced their hours, but the work-less trend continued last year when COVID had less of an impact.

The changes in work hours happened against a backdrop of a strong labor market, with unemployment in December at a mere 3.5%. It’s unclear whether the low unemployment rate, and therefore greater job security, factored into people working less. 

Before the pandemic, the share of men in the workforce had also been on the decline. In 2021, the male labor force participation was 67.5% as opposed to almost 80% in 1970. This decline among prime age men (between 25 and 54 years) has been led by men without college degrees dropping out of the workforce.

If more men who can afford to work fewer hours do so, it can have a big impact on productivity, said Yongseok Shin, one of the authors of the NBER paper. This can, in turn, affect the bottom lines of businesses.

“The U.S. is a very exceptional country where people value work so much, and they really idolize hard work, so that they work so many hours compared to other European countries,” Shin told Fortune earlier this month.

“We don’t know the future, but it seems like this is something that may actually stick around,” he said about the decline in working hours.

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