Why More Americans Are Bringing Work Home

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The bitter irony of the great squeeze for the middle class is that they're working longer hours to make the same, or less, money. Even as median wages have stagnated for the general workforce and fallen for men in the last 30 years, the share of workers putting in more than 50 hours a week has steadily climbed with each passing decade. This has been especially true of middle-class men and professional men and women.

But even this graph from Mother Jones and others like it might underestimate the surge in working hours. That's because after you factor in the part-time work, the overtime work, the double-shifts, and the skipped vacations, there's another category that might not be receiving enough attention. Home work.

Since before the downturn and through the recession, more and more people are bringing their work home, or never leaving the house to get work done in the first place. Self-employed workers are mostly likely to work from the house or apartment, and nearly 70 percent do. This will not shock you. What might surprise you is that 40 percent of multiple jobholders do some of their work from home, and more than one in three workers with a bachelor's degree and higher have been taking home work for the last decade. This graph, showing share of employed people who do some or all of their work at home tells the story.

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Most unincorporated self-employed workers work at home, but not all those who work at home are self-employed. Sabrina Pabilonia is a researcher at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where she studies productivity and technology, thinks of those who work from home in three distinct categories. First, those who bring home work not finished in the office. Second, occasional teleworkers. Third, home-based workers, like entrepreneurs, freelancers, and independent consultants. 

Entrepreneurs were always more likely to work outside the office structure. Of greater interest perhaps are the payroll workers who are either opting out of the cubicle lifestyle (a technological/ cultural shift) or finding that there is too much work to be done in the office alone (a labor/economic shift).

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of home-based workers doubled to 4.2 million. That reflects a pace of growth that is three-times the rate of the general workforce. A research paper by Gerald S. Oettinger cites two big reasons. First, as women's share of the labor force grew, some found home-based work arrangements more agreeable to their lifestyle. Second, the Internet, mobile phones, and teleconferencing software made it easier to connect from the home office.

Home work is growing not only by population but also by duration. The average hours of work at home grew to 3 hours from 2.5 hours between 2003 and 2010, and it grew most for upper-middle class workers with a bachelor's degree.

There's every reason to expect the trend to accelerate, especially within Pabilonia's second category -- the telecommuting worker staying home in a big city with crowded transportation. In New York City, for example, self-employment and freelance work accounted for two thirds of the job growth between 1975 and 2007, according to the Chicago Fed. For more people, one should think, the office of the future is the living room of the present.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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