Does the fall in working hours point to culture shift?

The recession has seen a big rise in part-time working. Has it changed the workforce for good?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Our recent economic woes appear to have done more for work-life balance than any number of HR policies: as business has slowed, staff have been cutting back (voluntarily or otherwise) on the long hours they were working during the boom years, according to the CIPD. What's more, there's been a big rise in the number of people - particularly men - working part-time. The CIPD reports that working hours have started to rise again over the last year, but there's surely a good chance that some of these changes will be permanent. If so, this may not bode well for the economy - since it will limit overall output - but it could be good news for family life and gender equality...

In the last couple of years, the CIPD reports, the impact of the recession has seen a 4.1% drop in full-time employment, and a 4.4% rise in part-time employment (up 333,000) - a clear indication of employees scaling back their hours to meet the demand for flexible working and stave off redundancies.

As a result, the overall number of hours worked in the UK each week has fallen by 32.7m (a 3.5% drop). Admittedly, the CIPD reckons there's been a ‘modest, although uneven’ rise in the demand for labour since the middle of 2009, as things have started to pick up again. But talk of a long-hours culture in the UK is clearly wide of the mark: only four European countries now have shorter working weeks than we do (that's Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden - slackers).

Another interesting point is that some parts of the workforce have felt the impact more than others. The number of men working full-time has apparently dropped by about 11%, whereas for women the figure has remained pretty much unchanged; equally, the number of men working more than 45 hours a week has dropped by almost 10%. It's tempting to see this in the light of recent research from that august publication Grazia, which found that men and women are now much more likely to be sharing the responsibility for childcare. This is partly to do with money (since a third of women are now earning more than their male partners), but in many cases it will also have been a matter of common sense as men were forced to scale back their hours.

We suppose you could argue that this is bad news for the economy, since all of these economically productive people have suddenly become less productive - in some cases for good, if they get a taste for reduced hours. But it'll do wonders for our work/ life balance in the longer term. And if men are playing more of a role in childcare, it might even advance the cause of women in the workplace too.

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