RDP 2016-06: Jobs or Hours? Cyclical Labour Market Adjustment in Australia 5. Conclusion

Since the late 1990s, a larger share of cyclical labour market adjustment in Australia has come about via changes in average hours worked, as opposed to changes in employment. While empirical evidence is inconclusive (partly due to the difficulty in modelling average hours worked), our view is that the relatively short and shallow economic downturns in the 2000s have played a role in this. Had these downturns been more severe, like the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s, firms eventually may have needed to shed more workers than they did. In other words, it is likely that both employment and average hours tend to adjust in the early stages of a downturn, but relatively more adjustment occurs through employment as the downturn persists and becomes more severe. It is also possible that labour market reforms over recent decades have provided firms with more scope to reduce their use of labour by reducing working hours rather than by redundancies.

We also find that the main driver of the adjustment in average hours during the 2008–09 economic downturn was a reduction in hours worked for employees who remained in the same job (i.e. labour hoarding). Consistent with this, a longer-run historical analysis suggests that changes in the composition of employment have not been the main driver of the decline in average hours during downturns and recessions.