Britain’s highest-paid workers also tend to work the longest hours in a sharp reversal of the historical norm that is exacerbating income inequalities, according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank.

For most of history, the longest hours were worked by lower paid, lower educated men, while members of a leisured class “measured their social prestige by how little paid work they could get away with”, the think-tank said in a report published on Saturday. Now, those with low pay and qualifications are “likely to work some of the shortest hours — not always by choice”, the RF said.

A typical worker today now works about 32 hours a week — about half as many as their counterpart did in the mid-19th century. But this long-term decline in working hours has been sharpest at the bottom end of the labour market, with long hours apparently becoming a sign of social status.

The tenth of men with the highest hourly pay now work 7 hours a week more on average than the tenth of men on the lowest hourly pay, the RF found. For women, the gap between the highest and lowest paid 10 per cent was 10 hours.

The working week for men without qualifications averaged 42.9 hours in 1979, and just 36.8 hours in 2009, while the average for male graduates fell from 39 hours to 37.8 hours. Over the same period, working hours increased for women with degrees, while falling for women without qualifications.

Chart showing that the longest hours are worked by the highest hourly-paid employees

These patterns partly reflect the decline of jobs with long working hoursin areas such as mining and manufacturing. The longest hours nowadays are in managerial roles, skilled trades and for smallnumbers of people working in the operation of machinery. Some of the shortest hours are in areas of the service sector that also tend to have low hourly pay — such as hospitality, retail, cleaning and care.

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George Bangham, the report’s author, said these trends could lead to widening inequality in weekly pay packets even if inequality in hourly rates of pay had levelled off in recent years.

The findings also help to explain why the long-running trend of falling working hours has stalled in the decade since the financial crisis: with real pay stagnating, many workers at the bottom end of the wage scale wantto work longer hours in order to increase their income and maintain living standards.

Underemployment — defined as wanting to work more hours at the same wage — was considerably higher among lower-paid workers during the pay squeeze that followed the financial crisis, although it extended to those on higher pay as well, the RF notes, arguing that the recent acceleration in female employment was partly a response to the pressures on household incomes.

Women living in couples increased their working hours the most in the decade since the crisis, working an average of more than an extra hour a week. Their employment rate also rose — partly because a higher minimum wage made it worth their while to do so, and possibly because more households felt the need for a second earner to insure against the risk of the primary earner losing his job.



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