That is the topic of my latest NYT column for The Upshot. Here are some excerpts:
In short, most older people already enjoy a much better deal than Keynes had predicted for the entire work force. The 1930 Keynes essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” didn’t even mention retirement, perhaps because he was accustomed to a world in which so many people worked until they died or were seriously disabled.
Teenagers are also ahead of Keynes’s workplace predictions. Several decades ago, about 55 percent of teenagers had jobs, but lately only about 35 percent do. In addition, service sector jobs have been replacing jobs involving manual labor. While enormous disparities exist among teenagers of different races and income groups, over all, life has gotten easier for them.
If people in all of these groups are working less, then someone must be working more. The answer, overwhelmingly, is women, who have taken on an Atlaslike role in supporting American economic growth.
There are reasons to believe that at least some of the growth in female work hours has been an unfair burden. It is well known, for instance, that men do not come anywhere close to fully sharing in the household chores or child rearing when their partners are working, and that often means more stress for women. Furthermore, the best available evidence, from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both professors of public policy at the University of Michigan (Mr. Wolfers is also a regular contributor to this column), suggest that overall female happiness in America has been declining, while age-adjusted death rates for middle-aged white women — though not for white men — have been increasing. Those troubling trends are perhaps another sign that the distribution of stress has been uneven.
Many men are working too little, and perhaps many women too much. But why isn’t there more smoothing of leisure over time?
On the other hand, many women do receive significant recompense in leisure time eventually — once they become older. Because women on average live longer than men, they are likely to have more years in retirement. Yet it is a strange society that disproportionately bunches much work and stress for so many women in the middle of their lives, and rewards them only much later with leisure. It is a kind of feast or famine for work, leisure and earnings.
Most economic models don’t account for these patterns, and instead assume that people engage in what is called smoothing behavior, in which leisure and work is evenly distributed across the years. Yet Americans as a whole are not experiencing that kind of moderation.
That is the real labor supply puzzle, and I don’t know of any consistent model which explains that along with other basic labor supply facts.