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Time to Shorten The Work Week Time to Shorten The Work Week


It’s Time to Shorten the Workweek

The U.S. government began tracking workers’ hours in 1890. At that time, the average full-time manufacturer employee put in a staggering 100 hours a week!



For many people today, especially those who have salaried positions or are in management, the 40-hour workweek is an elusive myth. Unpaid overtime is common, and today’s technology gives employers easy access to employees at all hours. This blurs the line between work and home life.

This is being played out now with many white collar jobs forced to work from home due to Covid-19. Between worker furloughs and layoffs, those still employed are shouldering the load to keep businesses functioning. And many jobs that continue to be eliminated due to this historic economic crash are unlikely to return .

How we got to the 5-day, 40-hour workweek

It was a long fight and drawn-out fight that got us to where we are today. In 1866, the new National Labor Union was the first to push Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. Although it failed and the union dissolved, other groups picked up the banner.

In 1867, Illinois passed it into law, but employers refused to follow it. This led to a huge strike in Chicago that became known as “May Day.” On each May Day thereafter, more strikes and demonstrations took place in support of the shortened workweek.

Two years later, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that included instituting an eight-hour workday for government workers. Private-sector workers, especially manufacturing employees who put in long hours, began pushing their employers to adopt it.

Employers, workers and government tussled over the issue for decades and pressure slowly mounted. A 44-hour workweek act was passed in 1938. Then, in October 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect mandating 40 hours as the standard workweek.

Four-day workweek vs. decrease in hours

The Covid-19 crisis has many Americans questioning the country’s obsessive work culture—and they want change. According to The Harris Poll, four out of every five workers support switching to a four-day workweek. However, you’d still be working 40 hours.

It sounds good when there are enough jobs to support it—but what if there isn’t? A better step, which will be needed in the coming years, is to decrease what a full-time, standard job means.

Automation and AI will eliminate the need for many jobs

The biggest question the government will face in the coming decades is a permanent reduction in human workforce need. The Brookings Institute released a 2019 study citing that more 109 million jobs are at risk for high or medium exposure to automation by 2030.

This doesn’t mean all of the impacted jobs will cease to exist. However, as more and more automation is brought on, the logical conclusion is less human labor will be needed.

It’s also important to note this study was done prior to the current economic crash. Thanks to Covid-19, which has gutted huge swaths of the economy, automation will likely come much faster than companies, and certainly the Federal Government, has planned.

It took well over a century to get to today’s standard 5-day, 40-hour workweek. We won’t have that luxury this time around. Technology will replace many repetitive and mundane job functions, and then move onto the jobs themselves. The U.S. will need to shift to less hours per worker to keep everyone employed and money moving throughout the economy.

Business efficiency and progress won’t be stopped. And why would we? If we can create a new work culture that is healthier and more balanced, while getting everyone back to work, it’s time to get moving.