Where the 40-Hour-Workweek Came From and How it Hurt the Economy
- 88 Comments
- By Stacey Bumpus
- February 8, 2010
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.
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.
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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