Why Do We Have the 40-Hour Work Week?

Not many people stop to question why it is they are trudging through a five-day, eight-hours-a-day, forty-hours-a-week working scenario.  It is just accepted as the norm that a standard job amounts to forty hours of work per week. Nor does anyone question whether eight hours a day is the most optimal period for highest productivity. In fact, those who have been researching this have discovered that we are actually more productive if we work 4-5 hours per day or 30 hours per week.

Yet modern business still clings to the 40-hour work week, with many employees actually averaging 47 hours per week!

But how did it start?

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain, and spread to Europe and the United States within a few decades.

In the 1800s, when the industrial age was booming, factories wanted to maximise their productivity and profitability. This meant keeping factories operating almost around the clock, six days a week. Workers were exploited by working long hours (between 10 and 16 hours per day) while earning very low wages. Most desperate workers unquestioningly worked those long hours and also sent their children off to work just to earn enough to scrape by. The only day off was Sunday which was chosen largely due to religious reasons, with Sunday being considered the day of rest in Christianity.

The Eight-Hour Work Day Movement

In 1817, nearly two hundred years ago, Welsh-born Robert Owen’s campaign for better working conditions and a shorter work week started in earnest in Britain. Owen, a utopian socialist and social reformer, initially called for a 10-hour day in 1810, but it was only from 1817 onwards that his campaign really gained momentum, and when his slogan “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest” became the mantra of the working class.

The eight-hour day movement soon spread globally. In the US, it quickly took root in the Chicago labour movement. On the 4th of May, 1886, the Chicago Haymarket Affair went down in history when a group of protesters gathered in the market in support of the eight-hour movement. What started off as a peaceful demonstration quickly turned sour when someone in the crowd threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by opening fire on the workers, killing four demonstrators.

In commemoration of the Haymarket Riot, the first of May was chosen as International Workers’ Day. Also called Labour Day or May Day, it is still commemorated in many countries across the world today. In the US, it is celebrated on the first of September.

Henry Ford Takes an Unprecedented Step

While the movement soldiered on and the debates about the feasibility of an eight-hour day raged on, Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company suddenly made an announcement that shocked the industry. In 1914, he announced that Ford would double the pay of its factory workers. Later, in 1926, prior to any official legislation coming into effect, he made the bold move to implement a five-day work week and reduced workers’ hours from 48 to 40.

However, the reason for this decision was not so much out of grave concern for the health of his employees, but as a theory he held that if employees worked less and had more rest and leisure time, it would increase productivity and profitability. He reasoned that people need more free time to do things like shop. After all, what was the point of producing hundreds of cars, and nobody had any time to go out and buy them, drive them and enjoy them!

“Leisure,” said Ford, “is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”

Turns out it was a card well played. Within two years, Ford’s profit margins doubled. Other manufacturers soon followed suit.

Legislation eventually caught up and, in 1938, President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Fair Labor Standards Act and the 40-hour, Monday-to-Friday work week became the legal standard in the United States, and eventually became a standard practice adopted across the world.