Why Work Hours Are Limited

Why does government regulate how long some people work and not others?

Robin Hanson asks, Why Work Hour Limits?

Many laws discourage and limit work hours. Laws require holidays and vacations, limit hours per day and week, and require extra payment for work over these limits. And of course income taxes discourage work more generally. The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours, for a net social loss. Work hour limits can reduce such losses. (Academic articles hereherehereherehere.)

This argument makes some sense, but it would make a lot more sense if we set broader and more consistent limits. Yet we don’t at all limit housework, and place few limits on self-employed work. Furthermore, high status occupations are especially exempt. Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours. Yet the signaling argument would seem to apply nearly as well if not better to such high status work. Why are we so selective in our limits?

One explanation is a battle for relative status between professions and activities. Areas where work hours are limited produce less, and so look less impressive. Ambitious folks who want to show their high abilities then choose other areas, leading to an equilibrium were observers reasonably less respect folks who work in limited areas. On this story, work hour limits were set in manufacturing and manual labor in order to reduce the status of such activities.

This strikes me as an example of thinking like an economist–a world where all things are magically held equal for the sake of theoretical argument–without regard for history. Work hour limits, after all, go back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution and have been in place in most developed countries since the mid-1800s.

While there may be some small element of pride among “high status” workers in working crazy hours, it’s a minuscule factor, if that, in explaining the differential treatment of high and low status jobs under the law. Simply put, in a world where labor is a disposable commodity, management has every incentive to seek efficiency by maximizing the amount of work extracted from each individual worker. Absent standardized rules limiting work hours or otherwise setting minimum work conditions, there would be a race to the bottom with regard to low skill, easily replaceable labor.

We didn’t need work hour limits in the pre-industrial days, where most people were employed in subsistence farming. There, the vagaries of weather, climate, season, and growth cycles dictated hours and conditions. Similarly, housewives and the self-employed of today don’t need restrictions on their hours because they can set their own schedules; there’s no power balance that needs to be offset.

Certainly, many “doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers” work extraordinarily long hours, often at the direction of supervisors. Mostly, though, their jobs are outcome-based rather than input-based. That is, they work long hours in order to get projects done, books written, cases prepared, software delivered, and so forth. Generally speaking, though, there are long term financial and psychic rewards for that effort that simply don’t exist for low status laborers.

There are, of course, still abuses in the system. Large segments of the work force are “exempt” employees, paid a salary rather than an hourly wage and classified as doing managerial or high level work even though they’re really not in charge of anyone, including themselves. But there are actually pretty extensive rules in place for dispute resolution.

I’ve been in the work force the better part of a quarter century and have spent all of it without a 40-hour week or overtime pay.* Whether as an Army officer, college professor, book editor, defense contractor, or think tanker, I’ve had external expectations as to when I’d appear at my place of business and what I’d accomplish as well as internal goals and expectations. Generally speaking, my problem has been that there’s too little time or too little energy to get more productive work done. But, with rare exception, I’ve had the great luxury of being engaged in work that I actually wanted to be doing and found meaningful and rewarding aside from the paycheck.

The bottom line is that those of us with careers need comparatively little protection. Those with jobs need quite a bit more. See Chris Rock for a NSFW explanation of the distinctions.

*Although even people like me benefit from the notion that we’re supposed to work five days a week, roughly eight hours a day, and get weekends and holidays off.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Perhaps not so tangentially related:

    Middle-aged borrowers piling on student debt

    Presumably, seeking careers.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    I really wouldn’t have any problem knowing the guy driving the Semi in the next lane has been awake and on the road for 36 hours…or that the pilot of the plane I’m on has been flying for two days straight. What harm could it possibly do? Besides…the invisible hand of the fre-market is always there to protect me…right???

  3. Osama Von McIntyre says:

    Are you just running out of things to blog about?

    It seems pretty straightforward: if you captain your own ship, you get to choose our own hours. If you are simply trading your time for money, rules are in place to protect you from exploitation.

    And it’s not so much that workers are limited to 8 hours: employers have to pay a premium for hours above that level. Because financially marginal, low-skilled people have virtually zero negotiating leverage.

  4. JKB says:

    Work hour limitations came about to increase the number of jobs. Either to consume the excess labor pool which otherwise might starve or riot, or in later years, to increase the number of unionized workers (paying dues). My grandfather did the former informally during the depression when he shared his job with his bother-in-law so that both families could have some income.

    It was only later that quality of life became a issue and only very recently that crew fatigue came to the forefront.

    As to why some are limited and not others, well, there status does have an impact. To be non-exempt (from FLSA) is to be working class, even in the office. I’ve seen those with university degrees in government jobs that were essentially, non-exempt, fight hard to keep their job exempt and therefore like the other professionals. Historically, those in the upper class and those “learned” individuals have viewed the useful (manual) worker with disdain. It is quite funny to see how many “exempt” employees, especially in government that are held to strict schedules, breaks and lunches, with very little control of how or when they accomplish their work.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    The notion of hour limits is probably dated. According to the latest BLA surveys:

    The average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls was unchanged at 34.3 hours in November. The manufacturing workweek was down by 0.2 hour to 40.3 hours, offsetting a 0.2 hour gain in the previous month. Factory overtime remained at 3.2 hours in November. The average workweek for production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls edged down by 0.1 hour to 33.6 hours.

    The long trend has been fewer hours at work, except in manufacturing. This would appear to suit the staffing needs of many employers (particularly if labor specialization means a person may not be needed for a a full 40 hour week) and employees who value the time.

  6. Liberty60 says:

    JJ puts his finger on the issue precisely-
    Economists think in terms of rational actors making decisions in a perfect vacuum, where all choices are made on level playing fields.

    Power imbalance, that warps and distorts the field making some choices nearly impossible and others inevitable, rarely comes into play in their theories.

    So a single mom working at Wal Mart has the same range of freedom as an attorney.

  7. Wayne says:

    Much of it has to do with the type of work. Working tired at labor job such as a beef plant can cost someone their hand or life. Their productivity per hour tends to decline as well. A programmer screws up and the program may not run right but it not life threatening. The one exception and can think of are doctors but the shortage of physicians explains that. There have been situations where the rules on truck drivers have been temporarily suspended because of shortages. Same has happen for before rule exceptions were created for those in the power industry.

    Also many in the professional field work on salary and not wages. Owners don’t get page per hour but on profit. As some have stated above, there is the principle of protecting people with little leverage.

    Sometimes some rules are impractical or unrealistic to apply across the board. Thinking there should be one template for everyone is unrealistic. There is a big difference between the jobs of being a beef plant worker, doctor, infantryman, computer programmer or a farmer.