When my mother was in college, 30 years ago now, her lecturers predicted that the average working week would soon be reduced to just 15 hours as technological advancement took away the need for human labour. While the technological advances predicted at the time have indeed come to pass, the standard full time work week has remained stubbornly set at 40 hours per week. Meanwhile, unemployment has slowly but surely climbed and many working adults find that their jobs take up a huge amount of their time that they would prefer to devote to other things. But why do jobs take up so much of our time as adults? What is the justification for the full time working week being set at 40 hours? Is this the best way to organize the economy, or is it a hangover from history that impedes economic development and the self-actualization of people in the present day?
History of working hours
“ The concept of a full time work week being 40 hours did not become accepted as industry standard until Ford Motor Company scaled their working week down from 48 hours to 40 hours in 1914”
To understand why working hours are now constructed the way they are, it is important to look at the history of the concept. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people worked irregular hours, usually in the agricultural sector, and saw little reason to record the amount of time they spent working, so it is very difficult to accurately estimate the time spent at work in this period. Most modern estimates by historians say that medieval era peasants probably worked more than a modern worker but far less than workers in the earliest era of industrial capitalism, with the exact amount of work to be done varying a lot depending on the time of year. During the Industrial Revolution, as factory owners aimed to maximize the output of their factories, 10-16 hours a day became the norm for workers. This for obvious reasons left many people unhappy, and labour rights movements pushed back. The Scottish factory owner Robert Owen was a key figure in pushing for shorter working hours, firstly by standardizing the 10 hour working day at his factories and later by campaigning for the 8 hour working day to become the norm under the slogan “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”.
Although the campaigning of Robert Owen and others led some businesses to adopt the 8 hour work day, the concept of a full time work week being 40 hours did not become accepted as industry standard until Ford Motor Company scaled their working week down from 48 hours to 40 hours in 1914. At the same time, they doubled the workers pay. Somewhat surprisingly, this lead to an increase in profit for Ford as productivity surged, so other companies followed suit until the 40 hour work week was the industry standard. In the United States, the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938 formally set the full time work week to 40 hours and required those working longer than this to be paid overtime pay. After that, 40 hours was accepted as the correct amount of time for a full time worker to work per week in most developed countries, and that still holds in the present day.
The graphs displayed with this article show that there has been a general trend towards reduced working hours in every country examined over the past 150 years. However this trend has slowed down since the days of Ford’s then revolutionary hours reduction. The working week has in most countries remained static at 40 hours per week. It is only quite recently that the idea of reducing the number of hours in the full time work week has become a popular issue for political discussion again, with France adopting a 35 hour work week in 2000 and the online sales company Amazon recently implementing a 30 hour working week for some of its workers.
“The other main objection to the idea that we need to reduce working hours is the argument that advancing technology does not actually need to lower the number of jobs”
The stagnation in working hours stands in contrast to the massive increase of productivity seen in national economies in the same time period. Take the United States as a case study – as can be seen from the attached graph, the United States economy has massively increased its productivity, to the point that the economy was 147% as productive in 2015 as it was in 1947. This is mostly the result of the invention of computational technology that allowed a large amount of work previously done by humans to be automated and so done much faster.
This enhanced productivity certainly leads to more and cheaper goods and services being available for people to buy – people living today live the most luxurious lifestyles of people at any point in human history. But it also leads to fewer people being employed – when a smaller number people can do all of the work that the economy needs, fewer jobs are going to be available. The graph of unemployment in the US over the same time period illustrates this problem: the rate of unemployment goes up and down in cycles but the general trendline indicates that the broad trend is towards higher unemployment as time wears on. The same general trend is seen in other countries like the UK, Germany or France. Unemployment damages a person’s self esteem and mental health, which is very unfair on people who cannot get a job because there is insufficient work available, so it is incumbent on governments to reduce unemployment as much as possible. A shorter full time work week might help to alleviate this issue, as each individual person would be doing less work and so more work would be available.
The lack of available jobs may be part of the reason why we see have seen a large expansion in the numbers attending third level education in recent years. As can be seen in the attached graph, the percentage of the population educated to degree level has risen hugely in most countries over the past 40 years. With fewer jobs available, people have started applying to and attending universities and Institutes of Technology to upskill and give themselves an edge in the competitive jobs market. To an extent this masks the issue with lack of jobs, as those who are in education are not considered to be unemployed. Educating the population is certainly a noble goal, and this increase in the number of highly educated people can be considered another positive outcome of the aforementioned increase in economic productivity. However, colleges are currently struggling to adequately accommodate the increased student populations and not everyone wants to go through a University education. Therefore, it is worth reconsidering the economic circumstances that lead to this situation so that people go to college only because they genuinely want to rather than because they have no other economic opportunities available. Again, a reduced work week might be part of the solution to this issue.
“…… the general trendline indicates that the broad trend is towards higher unemployment as time wears on”
One of the potential problems with the idea of reducing the number of hours in a standard working week is described by the “lump of labour” fallacy. This fallacy occurs when someone claims that there is a set amount of work in the economy, which can be performed by anyone, in any location, at any time, so the work can easily be split up to increase employment by giving the currently unemployed some of the work that is currently being done by people who are at present employed. It is certainly true that we cannot simply carve up the work done in various jobs and hand it out equally to everyone – many jobs require particular skills that many people will not have without special training, and some jobs may need to be done in particular times and places. Therefore actually implementing a shorter working week without harming the economy will be a complex task that will likely need to be phased in gradually over time in order to actually benefit people’s lives. We must also remember that people who are working fewer hours will be earning less money unless wages rise accordingly, so either the wages paid to workers or the prices of goods and services will need adjustment for the shorter work week to improve worker’s lives rather than leaving them short on money.
The other main objection to the idea that we need to reduce working hours is the argument that advancing technology does not actually need to lower the number of jobs. Although manufacturing jobs are inevitably lost to automation, there are still jobs available in managing the machines that now do those jobs and people can seek out alternative work in the service sector. The problem with the first suggestion is that in order for mechanization of a production process to be worthwhile, it must be more efficient and less labour intensive than hiring employees to do the same work – otherwise, there would be no reason for a company to adopt it. There must necessarily be fewer jobs running the machines that do the production than there are when people do the production by hand. This means that technological advancement inevitably leads to less jobs in manufacturing. The problem with the suggestion that we simply move into service jobs is that there is a limited amount of time people have to consume services and a limited number of services people actually want, so again we will at some point run into the issue of there not being enough work available for everyone who needs work to find a job, if we are not already there.
The modern world economy does not have a way to ensure that enough jobs are available for everyone who needs to work under the modern paradigm of the 40 hour work week. The gradual rise in unemployment seen throughout the developed world as technology has advanced is unlikely to halt any time soon and it is our responsibility to re-examine the structure of the world economy to try to avoid the human suffering that unemployment causes as much as possible. With machines inevitably replacing human labour over time, a reduction in the standard full time work week to 30 hours, or maybe even fewer, seems like a prudent action to integrate the enhanced productivity granted by technological advancement into the economy with as few job losses as possible. Rather than attempting to create jobs that do not need to exist out of thin air, we should aim to restructure the world economy in such a way as to share out both the labours that go into and rewards that come out of the economic system in a more equitable and sustainable manner.