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The Changing Gender Distribution of Paid and Unpaid Work in New Zealand - WP 05/07

4   “Overworked” New Zealand households and gender equity in paid work

A comparison of the proportion of employees working 50 or more hours per week among a selection of OECD countries shows that New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of workers putting in long hours of paid work (Messenger 2004). When couples are considered, international comparative data also suggest New Zealand is at the high end of the working hours spectrum (see Appendix 3).[6]

New Zealand couples with young children tend to work shorter total hours than other couples. However, between 1986 and 2001 there was an increase in the total hours worked by couples with preschool children. Table 1 shows the proportion of child-rearing couples working a total of under 30 hours per week or, in terms of long hours, between 80 and 100 hours, and 100 or more hours per week between 1986 and 2001. While it shows an increase at both ends of the weekly working hours’ spectrum, the strongest growth was in longer hours.[7] The increasing hours of work for couples primarily reflect three trends: 1) an increase in the proportion of fathers working long hours; 2) increasing employment rates for mothers; and 3) at the same time, a decline in the number of employed mothers working short hours. This illustrates the importance of considering both changes in employment and in hours worked.

Table 1– Changes in weekly combined hours of paid work for employed couples with a child under five, 1986 and 2001
  % in each group of hours
  < 30 30 < 40 40 < 50 50 < 80 80 < 100 100+
1986 2.3 5.5 40.7 36.4 10.1 5.0
2001 4.2 3.4 27.4 42.2 15.6 7.2
δ86–01 1.9 -2.1 -13.3 5.8 5.6 2.2

Source: Callister (2004) using Census data.

At an aggregate level, between 1986 and 2001, there was a rise in average combined hours worked by employed couples aged 25-34 from 56 hours to 62 hours per week. While the differences are not great, education levels of both parents play some part in determining couples’ working hours, with poorly educated couples more likely to work shorter hours than well-educated parents. Yet, this rise in total working hours for childrearing couples needs to be seen in an international context.

As Johnston (2005) shows, New Zealand has relatively low employment rates for mothers with young children, but when total paid working hours are considered across the whole of society, New Zealand is near the top of the OECD. The following data support this view, even though couples raising children are the only group considered. However, the data also show some gendered dimensions of working hours among couples that Johnston does not highlight. The international data are drawn from an OECD comparison undertaken by Gornick (2005). The New Zealand data used in the comparison are from the 2001 Census so already take into account the increase in working hours for parents of young children over recent decades. The data are all for partnered parents and constitute individual-level rather than couple-level data. However, other analyses by Gornick suggest that the true couple-level data are not all that different.

Figures 8 and 9 show the combined working hours of couples with a young child (the full dataset is attached as Appendix 4). The averages in Figure 8 include those not in paid work (thus taking into account employment differences between countries), while in Figure 9 the averages only include employed parents. Figure 8 is particularly affected by the relatively low employment rates of mothers with a young child in New Zealand (Johnston 2005), but even when this group is removed total hours worked by New Zealand couples are still only in the mid-range. Noteworthy is the position of Sweden in both figures. While a much higher proportion of Swedish mothers of young children are employed relative to New Zealand (or, at least in the first year of the child’s life are on paid parental leave), total hours of Swedish couples are lower than those of New Zealand couples. These figures alone suggest that both employment rates and working hours need to be considered in discussions about families and work and that single measure comparisons with Nordic countries can be misleading.

Figure 8 – Mothers and fathers' average weekly hours in paid work (parents aged 25-50), child 0-2 (including those not working)
Figure 8 – Mothers and fathers' average weekly hours in paid work (parents aged 25-50), child 0-2 (including those not working).
Source: OECD data from Gornick (2005), New Zealand data from the Census.
Figure 9 – Mothers and fathers' average weekly hours in paid work (parents aged 25-50), child 0-2 (only those in paid employment)
Figure 9 – Mothers and fathers' average weekly hours in paid work (parents aged 25-50), child 0-2 (only those in paid employment).
Source: OECD data from Gornick (2005), New Zealand data from the Census.


  • [6]The OECD provides some estimates of total allocation of paid work, retirement and education across a lifecycle. While these data should be treated with considerable caution due to the nature of the estimates, they suggest that New Zealand men spend significantly more time in paid work than the OECD average, while for women the pattern is the opposite (OECD 2003: Table 1.2).
  • [7]These data indicate that in parallel to the polarisation of work across households (when measured simply by employment) there was also a polarisation of hours worked within households.
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