Where the 40-Hour-Workweek Came From and How it Hurt the Economy

Posted in Economy • February 8, 2010

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Can you imagine working a 30-hour week – not because your working hours were cut, but because it was the standard of the country? It’s something many workers have dreamed of but simply assume it’s not a possibility. But in actuality, there was a time around the Great Depression that the government actually fought for a work week of this length.

This makes you wonder just how many hours we should be working to have an effective day, especially when some other countries working shorter days and weeks? The history of the 40-hour work week is an interesting one, especially when it comes to its economic impact.

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The Pre-Depression Era Work Week

The standard work week has an interesting past. If you work from a time-line point of view, you will see that the work week fluctuated substantially throughout history. For instance, in the 4th century A.D., the Roman Empire had a whopping 175 holidays in a year, something workers of today would love.

In the Middle Ages, people were obligated to work eight hours a day, six days a week, excluding holidays. A saying from King Alfred the Great of England was “Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play, make just and healthy day.”

As time moved on, the work schedules actually increased a bit, especially in the United States. In around the year 1800, a 14-hour work day was customary in the U.S. for men, women and children. This was largely due to the Industrial Revolution. Then in 1840, President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order that laborers and mechanics be limited to working 10 hours in a day.

But it wasn’t until the International Labor Organization held its first conference in Oct. 1919 that “Hours of Work” convention established an 8- or 9-hour work day, which constituted a max of 48 hours worked per week.

Just as the work week seemed to settle, the Great Depression hit. In an effort to avoid layoffs, President Herbert Hoover proposed a bill that would reduce the work week to 30 hours. It passed in Senate; however, it didn’t make it through the House.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt entered office, he tried to push again for shorter hours, but they were overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, the Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act of 1936 passed, which required the federal government to pay its contractors overtime wages after eight hours of work in a day. And then the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 passed, which established the five-day, 40-hour work week for everyone, a standard we observe today.

What Are the Work Weeks of Other Countries?

The work weeks for countries around the world have varied over the years, but overall seem to have increased a bit so that they are similar to the work week of the United States. What’s interesting though is that, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the average work week for many countries is relatively lower than one might assume.

According to a map produced by the organization, the average work week for the United States is 35 hours and since the recession hit (which was after the map was produced) the average work week dropped even lower to 33 hours. This is lower than Poland and the Czech Republic, which average 38 hours per week, Greece, which averages 41 hours per week, and South Korea, which averages 44 hours per week.

However, the majority of the world, according to the map, works fewer average hours per week than the United States.

For instance, in Spain, Denmark and Ireland, the average work weeks are 31 hours. In France and Belgium, the average work week is 30 hours. And in the Netherlands and Norway, the average week is an unbelievable 27 hours.

Also, in many countries, the average number of paid vacation days averages 20 days (or four weeks), whereas in the United States, the average vacation period is 10 days.

What Would Happen if We Reduced Hours?

While the work week may show a decrease when averaged with part-time workers who have managed to keep their jobs as a result of their employers’ attempts to keep them employed in exchange for fewer hours, the standard is still 40 hours. However, some question how reducing working hours could impact productivity if doing so were made a standard.

Eric Rauch from MIT noted in his 2000 paper Productivity and the Workweek that “An average worker needs to work a mere 11 hours per week to produce as much as one working 40 hours in 1950.” In other words, we should be able to work reduced hours with no impact on productivity.

Even more interesting is that his research says that “polls and surveys have shown that people in countries with the standard of living that the US enjoyed in the 1950s are no less satisfied than today’s Americans.”

The only problem is that no one will be able to accept a 1950 standard of living after having already lived a 2010 standard. But then again, would we really have to give anything up? Think about all of the cars you see sitting on lots around the country. There are tons of products in stores nationwide with no threat of surplus reduction anytime soon.

Most likely, even if hours were reduced, there wouldn’t be a reduction in productivity due to the advancements in technology that have made it possible to increase productivity while working fewer hours. This is evidenced by the number of companies that have found ways to reduce their work weeks while maintaining or increasing productivity since the beginning of the recession. Despite having to layoff workers, they were able to keep their companies running.

In fact, Iowa’s state employees were recently awarded a four-day work week in order to cut energy costs with the understanding that productivity standards would not reduce. Other states have tried the work-week reduction as well, including Hawaii and Washington state, while Virginia and West Virginia are looking into the idea.

An official from Utah said that the five-day work week in the state is likely going to be a thing of the past because productivity isn’t suffering and energy costs have dropped.

Maybe in time, if the pilot states are able to show that there has been no true impact on their economies, the nation as a whole will follow suit on a standard reduction in hours, something that could not only reduce energy costs, but also create more productive individuals after receiving an extra day of rest. But in the meantime, it seems that workers must prepare to be laid-off and also know how to survive a layoff, because it’s much more cost-effective to just let a worker go (wages, benefits and all) than to reduce hours across the board.

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We would love to hear your comments and feedback

  • Nick

    I have been a labor supervisor for a while and one thing that I can say with certainty is that productivity is higher by working longer hours on less days. Every day my employees would spend about an hour getting ready for work and then cleaning up after work so over the 6 day work week we lost about 6 hours of productivity so in other words 42 hours of productivity/48 hours. With a 12 hours workday we would accomplish 44 hours of productivity/48 hours. 2 hours isn’t much, but when you have a crew of 6 people it is like adding another person for a day. I also felt that they employees would prefer to just have a 3 day weekend rather than less work each day

  • Anonymous

    some of the hardest working people I know come from “the inner cities,” including myself. Take your racist attitude and poor grammar back to whatever rock it is you crawled out from under.

  • GBRClaire

    Thanks for catching that!

  • Iowa State Alumnus

    Iowa State switched *some* employees to a 4-day, 10 hour work week. 10*4=40.

    40 hours = 40 hours

    5 day work week = 4 day work week (in terms of raw hours)

  • Iowa State Alumnus

    I prefer my obesity be uninformed, like the general American populous.

  • Erik

    Why should we be slaves to productivity numbers to begin with? Many of us work far more than 40 hours a week, and while we, maybe, earn a little more money, we were not created (or evolved) to generate cash, but to live. Our society has suckered us into giving up our land, which used to be for the use of all – remember how our ancestors could hunt or fish just outside of town – now we must work overtime to buy canned tuna. Our economy, which we slavishly serve – so we can have the latest cell phone or newest Prada shoes – devours our soul – so we can have “freedom.” What exactly is this “freedom” of ours that we cherish so proudly. The freedom of the powerful to corral the weak and poor into market segments and force us onto reservations (apartment complexes and subdivisions).

    A shorter work week – and perhaps – a more basic 50′s lifestyle – perhaps would let us enjoy our few precious years of life, better than would an extra few thousand dollars a year. We can always make money, but we can never get back time.

  • Anonymous

    Wow talk about fuzzy math here. Look, how about people just work what they want, oh wait they do. We are in the jobs we choose for ourselves. Don’t want to work 40 hours, find another employer. It’s our choice in the end. Let people do want they want, employers and employees.
    Btw, it is known fact that thesespeopke in other countries enjoy a smaller standard of living.

  • Anonymous

    No. You can sit at a desk for 40 hours and only end up doing 20 hours of work. Productivity is the measurement they are looking at. Also, insurance is often only given to individuals working “full-time” or 40 hours. Meaning we exist in a system that enforces a 40 hour work week and as counter intuitive as it may be, it is doing more harm than good.

  • Sarah

    “Look, how about people just work what they want, oh wait they do.”
    Reminds me of an eight year old last week that over-heard me mention that I was tired after a hard week at work. Her advice; If your job’s really hard, why don’t you just quit?
    There are still people that don’t get their “dream job”, and are willing to work in a less than ideal situation when they are given the alternative of that or un-employment.

  • Sarah

    Personally, if I had the choice, I’d still take the the 10 hour 4-day week. Why? Add in one more factor…
    4 hour a week commute < 5 hour a week commute

  • rjo55

    “….other countries enjoy a smaller standard of living….”

    If you mean having 400 cable channels, a flat screen TV to waste your life away, a 2500 square foot house that doesn’t get utilized – except to fill it full of garbage that we don’t need, an SUV that burns gallons by the minute, an education system that is falling apart, credit card debt that won’t be able to get paid over the next 20 years, politician’s voting for the corporations instead of the people, etc, etc, etc…..

    Yeah, I forgot that is “The American Dream”!!!!

  • Anonymous

    Is there a readable version of this somewhere?

  • Anonymous

    This article was very interesting however, I do not believe it actually supported its claim…and definitely did not support its title How it Hurt the Economy. I am not saying that the writer is wrong…I just wish there was more than just questions raised with historical facts to support asking the questions…but not support the hypothesis.

  • Guest

    What a bunch of hogwash. Sure productivity might have increased, but try living on less than 40 hours a week.This so called “article” (looks more like opinion piece to me) doesn’t even mention the lost income for who already have to work less than 40 hours a week.
    Want to know one of the main reasons why the government decided to get involved in healthcare? It’s exactly because of companies that don’t offer theri employees any healthcare because they work less than 30 hours a week.

  • bobdob

    yes but dont forget the fact that in the 50s there were not 100 trillion people on the planet either

  • Tony

    Productivity is a measure of output versus cost. With all else being equal, working fewer hours lowers productivity because all of the benefits and overhead costs, with the exception of a few items such as electricity, will be divided be fewer hours worked. This increases the cost per hour of each employee and lowers productivity.

  • DIANE

    OF COURSE A 30 HOURS WORK WEEK WOULD BE GREAT. IT WOULD CREATE FULL EMPLOYMENT IN THE UNITED STATES, IT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN BRAIN WASHED.

  • Acaraho

    No one works a 40 hour regular work week anymore. Sure, people put in 40 hours (or more) of time in where they work but if you add in socializing, extended breaks and lunches, coming in late , leaving early, and just loafing off, it probably comes to around 20 hours of actual work time per week. I know because I saw my co-workers do that every day for 36 years and I know where I work was representative of many other businesses. Hey, just read Dilbert to see how it is to work in an American office. Scott Adams gets it.

  • DAVE

    WHY DON’T REPUBLICANS COMPLAIN ABOUT SOMETHING THAT CAUSES OVERTIME OR HOUR TO BE WORKED WHEN THINGS ARE GOING WELL. THIS NATIONS INVETORY TAX ON COMPAINIES HAS HURT THIS COUNTRY IN WAYS THAT REALLY DAMAGE OUR ECONOMY. WHEN YOU CARRY NO INVENTORY YOU ARE FORCED TO INCREASE HOUR TO HANDLE HIGH DEMAND PIRIODS. THIS PUSHES UP COST WHEN YOU ARE GROWING. WHEN OTHER COUNTRIES MAKE STEEL FOR EXAMPLE IT TAKES MANY HOUR TO SWITCH OVER TO DIFFERENT KINDS OF STEEL MAKING IN A STEEL MILL SO OTHER COUNTRIES SPREAD OUT THIS COST BY PRODUCING MAYBE 2 YEARS SUPPLY OF THAT STEEL. THIS INVENTORY TAX TOOK OUR STEEL MILLS OUT OF BUSINESS FASTER THAN THE WAGES BEING PAID TO WORKERS BECAUSE IT MADE STEEL COST MORE. THE REPUBLICANS HAVE SPENT SO MUCH TIME BEATING UP ON WORKERS AND UNIONS IN THIS COUNTRY THEY CAN’T SEE OR ARE BLIND TO THE PROBLEMS WE HAVE AS WELL AS THEIR CAUSES! INVENTORY TAX IS NOTHING MORE THAN PRETAXING FUTURE SALES INSTEAD OF TAXING THE PROFITS IN THE END.

  • DAVE

    YOU SHOULD HAVE WENT UNION IF YOU THINK THAT YOU PLACE OF WORK IS THAT BAD. UNIONCONTRACKS DON’T ALLOW FOR COMING IN LATE ALL THE TIME. BREAKS ARE FOR A SET AMOUT NOT EVERY TIME YOU WANT ONE. I WORKED FOR A NON UNION COMPANY ONCE WERE THE OWNERS WHO WERE ANTI UNION WANTED ME TO WRITE NEW RULE TO FIX AN ATTENDANCE PROBLEM THEY HAD. SO I DID AND GAVE THEM A COPY OF MY NEW RULES THEY RESPONDED WITH THEY RULES WERE TO STRICK AND WOULD GIVE THEM NO CHICE BUT TO FIRE PEOPLE WHEN THEY BROKE THE RULES. YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THEIR FACE WHEN I HANDED THEM A UAW UNION CONTRST BOOK AND TOLD THEM IT WAS WORD FOR WORD THE RULES IN THE CONTRACT BOOK. I NEVER SAW NON UNION WORKERS WORK VERY HARD BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO RULES TO MAKE THEM WORK.

  • Annie B

    The information in this article is false. There was no such thing as a medieval ‘workday’ controlled by ‘hours’ – as there were few CLOCKS. Also, the ‘hours’ of the Church – which is what medieval references to hours are about – were set by sun movement and each was an average of TWO hours long. (Well, the ones at night were longer and the ones in the morning were shorter – but there were only 12 ‘hours’ in a full day.)
    So king ALfred – who BTW would have spoken the germanic Old English – could never have said anything about the 8 hour day.
    Medieval work contracts – and in general work until the late 1800′s – was set by the week or by the season. Farm contracts by the year. A person lived with their work and their employer. Not at all like modern jobs. The expectation was that one would work ‘while there is light’ on six days a week and go to church on Sunday.

  • Anonymous

    Shorter work weeks fine by me!

  • Anonymous

    40 hour work week? Never had one in the corporate defense contracting world. Its been 45 hours + for three years now and I am just a pion. Close to a nervous breakdown at this point I may add.

  • JR

    Holding inventory is always a loss. Your money is tied up in material that you don’t need when it could otherwise be used to gain a ROI. While I do agree that Changeover time is also a loss, you should never make 2 years of inventory at a time because of it. The reason companies don’t hold inventory is only partially due to taxes. Its also due to the fact that you could stick the money in any bond/stock/CD etc. and make a ton more money than sitting on inventory.

    The reason companies relocate to other contries is because of COST. Believe it or not, companies work to make money. I’m pretty sure most people work for the same reason. If you can produce for 10% less in a low cost country, and shipping and inventory costs don’t exceed that amount then it makes sence to relocate to there.

    Unions are definately not the only contributor, but are 1 of the major contributers to driving up COSTS and as a result forcing companies outside the country.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, but you’ve worked 45 hours a wee for three years and are close to a nervous breakdown?

    I’d hate to see what would happen to you if there were an emergency and you had to put in a lot of hours during the course of a day, instead of averaging one extra hour per day. You’d probably have to be put into a sanitarium. Or put to sleep.

  • Mandy Cat

    During the last five years of my 28-year career in the computer industry, I would have killed for a 40-hour work week. When I began as a programmer in 1981, my peers and I worked hard and when the pinch was on we worked long hours but we were still able to balance work life and personal life. By the time I retired, the work week had for all practical purposes expanded to 24 by 7, at the whim of management. Some management theory genius even came up with a catchy name: Agile Lifecycle Development. Every minute of our lives was assumed to belong to our employer unless otherwise specified; there were no boundaries. They got away with it because technical jobs were scarce but it’s hard to think of a bunch of sleep-deprived drones, resentful at being treated with such contempt, as “productive” especially since we had to carve out hours from an already hectic day once a quarter to listen to our CEO driveling on about the importance of family.

  • Tony R

    I am not worried about my hours yet. I am mostly worried that our countries economy is based on the military and the contracts to support their actions. Their actions are mostly for the purpose of musling into other countries on behalf of wallstreet,banks, and corperations. That way the wealthy and powerful elite can export all our jobs overseas to expoit cheap labor. These are the same people we bail out with our tax money. Something has got to give.

  • Nate

    Old thread but I can’t resist making a comment. I’m amazed out how many people defend the 40-hour + work week like it’s some kind of honorable thing. As a salaried IT person I work more than 40 hours a week and I don’t enjoy it. I can’t stand when people say “it’s job security” to somehow defend the ridiculous and frustrating scenarios we are all thrown into everyday of the work week. Technology was supposed to allow us to achieve the same levels of productivity while working less hours. But corporations are greedy and work us all to the bone. CEO salaries don’t get cut when things get bad. Workers get cut and the remaining people get asked to do more work. When the economy recovers things stay the same because they’ve realized they can get by with less workers. The point is, time is precious and you don’t get it back. Yes the majority of us have to work 40 hours a week to pay our mortgage, car payment, daycare, credit card bills etc but we shouldn’t have too. And it’s not that easy to just quit your job if you don’t like it. Yes i’m idealistic but so what? Why shouldn’t we want more free time to enjoy the things and people we love. And for the record, I do see how we have brought a lot of this on ourselves with our rampant consumerism. I have always tried to live within my means yet I’m still struggling to save money. But the only way out these days is to live on a commune. I’m not saying we don’t need to work. I’m just saying we need to work less.

  • Dave

    When you own your own business, you work until you finish your project, when you are an Executive you get paid a lot because guess what you aren’t worried about what time you will be done with work, because you are in a leadership role and have to ensure the business is able to profit. Companies at the end are for the bottom line, but our education system has taught many that they are entitled to benefits, and now people want a short work weeks.

  • Skip

    “”For instance, in the 4th century A.D., the Roman Empire had a whopping 175 holidays in a year, something workers of today would love”".

    DUDE, DO YOU WANT THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TO END UP LIKE THE ROMAN EMPIRE? WHY DON’T YOU PACK YOUR BAGS AND GET BON BACK TO ROME. LOOOOOOZER!!!!

  • adrian

    Netherlands: 27 hours????

    Not in yours dreams! The author obviously did not
    read official statistics

    A fulltime job in the Netherlands: 36 hours

    Count also for the avarage job, a Dutchmen works two hours overtime not being paid (official statistics)

  • Mark R

    I don’t like the idea of a “standard workweek” at all. I agree with the commenter who said people ultimately are able to choose their own work hours, by choosing where to work. However what perplexes me is when I tell people I chose a job requiring far fewer than 40 hours (and definitely getting paid less for it, but that’s my own choice), most folks react as if it’s somehow immoral, or dishonest, or disrespectful or whatever. Whatever happened to the individual pursuit of happiness?? That said, I live in the Washington DC area where people tend to be on the ambitious side.

  • MIke

    I for one think it’s ridiculous that we all work so much. I currently work as an IT analyst for a fortune 500 company. Our work week is 37.5 hours but if something breaks I can be up all night fixing it. The sad part is I usually have about 20 hours a week where I basically surf the internet. I should be paid for the work I do, not a certain number of hours. You can bet your bottom dollar if I could leave when my work was done I would probably only work 10 hours a week. I have changed my entire mindset lately. My mail goal in life is to work part time now. My wife and I are saving money to move away from the expensive D.C. area to Rochester or somewhere that we can buy a house with cash. Then I will try to work 25-30 hours a week and actually have time to enjoy my life. Materialism will never bring you happiness. Isn’t that the most important thing in life?

  • http://google.com Jman

    Ahem Mike, you said it. Good plan.

  • Duncan Patterson

    I think the 40 hour work week is a bunch of crap, we were not put on this earth to slave for a bunch of greedy assholes and their little suck ass companies. The people that agreed to this crap should have been strung up or shot, maybe even a little beheading. But nothing ever changes in this piss poor country. The system in this country should have been created to help people have a better life not work their asses to the bone and then discard them like a piece of trash. A lot of things can change but people in general are too afraid of change or their too afraid of our chicken shit government.

  • Chris

    Duncan you are AWESOME!!

  • Ken K

    Duncan you’re the man! Let’s kill all those greedy assholes that own those little suck ass companies than all 300 million of us (minus the dead greedy assholes) can revert back to hunting and gathering to sustain our lives and our families. Just make certain you have enough money for an annual hunting permit and you don’t remove any eatables from state or federal property. Of course the 47% +/- of us on the gov’t dole won’t have to worry because the gov’t will continue to provide for us until it realizes that those greedy assholes are dead and not paying taxes or providing jobs to employees who also are no longer paying taxes. I suspect you might become one of those greedy assholes yourself since you would not work for one. you are a person of principal, yea, right! Wake up moron…….

  • Ann

    It should be 30 hours or less.

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