Why Do We Still Work 40 Hours a Week?

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The 40-hour, 5-day workweek has been the norm in the United States for almost 100 years. Now imagine if it were replaced with a 32-hour, 4-day workweek--with no cut in pay. Would work-life balance magically descend on the land? Or would people be more stressed than ever? Should the 4-day workweek become the new normal?

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How did the 40-hour workweek become the norm?

Let’s rewind back to the Industrial Revolution, where workers weren’t uncommon to put in 12-hour days, six days a week. Workers back then weren’t stans of this arrangement, which is what led to the labor movement. By the 1880s, the slogan on everyone’s lips: “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” In the 1920s, Henry Ford shocked the world by shortening the workweek for his assembly line employees down to 40 hours per week. And when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the U.S. Gov’t saw Ford’s shorter workweek as a way to fight the massive unemployment crisis – companies would need to hire more workers to get the job done. By 1940, a series of laws made the 40-hour workweek the norm in the U.S.  It has been that way ever since.

What’s the economic reasoning for switching from a 40-hour to a 32-hour workweek?

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From 1979 to 2020, the productivity of the typical U.S. worker increased 62 percent, but the average pay only increased 17 percent. Companies were making more and more profit, but they weren’t sharing it with most of their employees. So where ARE all the profits going? Basically; two places. The salaries of people who are already in the top 20 percent, and shareholders who make money from owning company stock. The takeaway for many: if I’m not seeing the benefit to all this increased productivity, what motivation do I have to keep putting in 40 hours a week?

Has a shortened workweek actually been tried anywhere?

Yes! Iceland conducted a country-wide experiment to answer the question: what would happen if people worked fewer hours for the same pay? From 2015 to 2019, a little over one percent of the working population had their hours reduced from 40 hours a week to around 36 hours with no reduction in pay. Not exactly a 4-day workweek, but close. And it was a success. Productivity did not decrease, and most workers reported feeling happier, healthier, and more well rested.

Can the 32-hour work week work in the U.S.?

It was easier to make happen in Iceland, where 90% of its workers are in unions, making it MUCH easier to bargain for a shorter workweek. Here in the U.S., only 10% of workers are in unions. Tech companies have been ground zero for experimenting with shorter work weeks, to varying results. California has a stalled bill in its state legislature to redefine the state’s workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours, but it’s stalled and pretty much has no chance of passing. Until then, offering shortened workweeks is a voluntary, company-by-company decision.

SOURCES

How the 40-hour work week became the norm https://www.npr.org/2021/11/05/1052968060/how-the-40-hour-work-week-became-the-norm 

The five-day workweek is dead https://www.vox.com/22568452/work-workweek-five-day-four-jobs-pandemic

The 300,000-year case for the 15-hour week https://www.ft.com/content/8dd71dc3-4566-48e0-a1d9-3e8bd2b3f60f

What really happened in Iceland’s four-day week trial https://www.wired.co.uk/article/iceland-four-day-work-week

Going Public: Iceland’s journey to a shorter working week https://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/ICELAND_4DW.pdf

Why a California Congressman Has Proposed a Four-Day Workweek

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/21/us/four-day-workweek.html

The 4-Day Week Is Flawed. Workers Still Want It https://www.wired.com/story/four-day-week-burnout/