Nine to five has been the mantra of the American worker for generations. That’s all changing in the 21st-century economy, but the concept of a work week consisting of five, eight-hour shifts is still the gold standard in American labor — as anyone who has ever earned overtime pay should know.
The 40-hour work week is so ingrained that it feels like a law of nature, but it’s actually the result of a different kind of law — one that comes from the legislature — and it wasn’t always that way. Although no industrialized country clocks more hours at work than the U.S., 40-hour weeks would have felt like a part-time breeze to most Americans in the early 20th century and before.
Who Came Up With the 40-Hour Week?
The simple math behind the 40-hour work week is a standard eight-hour shift times five work days in a week — but that figure didn’t appear out of thin air.
We owe the notion to Welsh industrialist and labor rights activist Robert Owen, who famously split the day into “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Owen’s idea didn’t catch on in his native Europe but was adopted as a slogan in the post-Civil War United States.
Industry, Depression and 40 Hours as a Practical Solution
A different industrialist pioneered the 40-hour work week in the United States. According to NPR, Henry Ford introduced the eight-hour workday here, but for different reasons than Owen. Ford’s goal was to run his factories 24 hours a day with three shifts per day.
It would take the Great Depression, however, to make 40 hours the norm. With unemployment at epidemic proportions, the government believed that fewer hours would spread around the available work to more people.
An early component of the National Industrial Recovery Act — which aimed to raise wages and grow jobs to stimulate the economy — it resulted in employers signing 2.3 million agreements to limit workweeks to between 35 and 40 hours, and also pay a fair minimum wage.
Three years later, the Public Contracts Act of 1936 was on the table, calling for government contractors to officially adopt the eight-hours-per-day, 40-hours-per-week standard.
The bill met with congressional resistance and was eventually simplified, then heavily amended before President Roosevelt finally signed it into law as the Fair Labor Standards Act in October 1938. The act limited work weeks to 44 hours.
The law was amended two years later to reduce the number by four hours, and 40 hours became the official American workweek in 1940.
The New Deal and the 40-Hour Work Week as a Moral and Social Issue
The 40-hour work week was a pragmatic solution to problems of industry and unemployment, but it was also a hard-fought victory for labor and human rights activists.
As early as 1866, the newly formed National Labor Union unsuccessfully petitioned Congress for a 40-hour workweek. The Chicago May Day riots of 1867 erupted when businesses refused to cooperate with a state law mandating a 40-hour workweek.
The protections in FDR’s New Deal and the Fair Labor Standards Act were the culmination of decades of advocacy and protest against the grueling hours and dangerous working conditions that defined the Industrial Revolution for millions of American workers.
According to PBS, the average work week for manufacturing employees in 1890 was 100 hours — 102 hours for building tradespeople.
The Disappearing 40-Hour Work Week: Today’s Changing Labor Landscape
In 1999, the International Labour Organization reported that Americans worked more than employees in any other industrial nation on Earth — nearly 2,000 hours a year.
The two decades that followed that report changed the very concept of work in America — and the result has been even longer hours.
According to Vox, “American capitalism in the 21st century has all but destroyed the concept of free time.” By 2014, the average salaried worker was putting in 49 hours a week with one in four working more than 60 hours.
As the gig economy rose, so did the number of hours contract workers were putting in.
“Contract workers work 100 hours per week with no overtime,” a University of California at Santa Barbara history professor told CNBC in a 2017 article. “Today, the eight-hour workday is falling apart.”
When the pandemic forced a shift to work from home, remote workers found themselves working more hours than they had when they were in the office, according to the Society For Human Resource Management.
On paper, the 40-hour work week is still the law. In practice, the most overworked country in the industrialized world appears to be regressing.
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