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September 1996

Is It Time to Dump the Forty-Hour Week?

by Dennis Kaplan and Sharon Chelton

You know the drill: those mornings when the alarm clock can be the cruelest sound in the world, when the end of the work day — the part that comes after commute, dinner, cleanup and trip to Radio Shack to replace your pager batteries — can seem a lifetime away. Want to hear a joke? How about that hiking group you were thinking of joining? How about reading a book?

The problem seems both entirely individual and as impersonal as a summer heat wave. What politician or party or ballot measure could offer relief? These days, those of us lucky enough not to have been “downsized” or “restructured” out of our jobs altogether find our work schedules crowding out everything else. More of us are working overtime. Yet others, such as San Francisco office manager Merriam Luskin, believe that even 40 hours is “too much.” When she adds up the lunch preparations, the wait at “the world’s ugliest bus stop,” and travel time, she feels she is “never far away from work.”

Lack of quality time is a painful daily reality for many. It affects people more directly than the majority of concerns expressed in opinion polls, but as an economic and political issue, the problem goes unacknowledged and ignored. In recent years, however, some economists have once again opened the issue of work time, and are re-examining the 40-hour week as the unchallenged standard.

Harvard economist Juliet Schor is one of these new voices, and her book The Overworked American is among those which have rekindled the debate. Schor contends:

~ Americans work longer hours and have less vacation time than their European counterparts.
~ Work hours are increasing (up 163 hours annually since 1969).
~ If the present trend continues, in 20 years the average person will be working over 60 hours per week.
~ Employers reap an economic benefit from longer hours and any attempt to reduce them will be met with stiff opposition.

Why should work hours be increasing in an era characterized by electronic co-workers with the ability to sort entire phone directories in less time than most of us need to sort the mail? The effects of this technology are hardly illusory when measured in terms of productivity (up over 100 percent since 1948). Yet, most workers have not gained more free time. If they had, Schor tells us, “we could now produce our 1948 standard of less than half the time it took in that year. We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work-with pay.

Clearly this has not happened. Increased productivity has given us a dividend, but that dividend has been redeemed in the form of increased income and consumption rather than leisure.

Gizmos and silicon were not the only developments that were supposed to have reduced our burden of labor. When women’s participation in the work force began its dramatic increase in the early 1970s, many thought that this, too, would put a downward pressure on work hours. In fact, in an epoch still dominated by the image of the male bread winner, there was even concern about the psychological consequences of men suddenly being forced to share the available labor.

Others saw this as an opportunity, a movement toward a new egalitarianism in which both sexes would finally be free to pursue parenting, career, or other experiences, in proportions of their own choosing. Words like “flex-time” and “job-sharing” entered the popular parlance, and with them came the hope of an improving quality of life.

But this vision never materialized. Since 1969, the work week has expanded for all of us, men and women alike.

One change that did materialize out of that period was the increased percentage of two-income households. This may actually have produced a new squeeze on families as freshly-stoked economic forces, such as spiraling housing costs, arose to devour these new incomes. Today, for many, the two-income household is no longer optional. Both parents must often work full time just to stay even. Increasingly, the modern family is characterized by spouses and children who rarely see one another, with an attendant social fallout: disintegrating marriages, unsupervised children, plummeting educational standards (SAT scores have fallen 7.9 percent since 1963), community breakdown, and crime.

It is as though we have found ourselves living in the wrong future. From the‘30s through the‘50s, the notion that we would soon all work fewer hours was simply generally assumed.

In 1956 even conservative Vice President Richard Nixon predicted that all Americans would be working a four-day week in the “not too distant future.” In a 1959 issue of The Nation, Edmund Ziegler rhapsodized, “The extra day of leisure for Americans will have an effect as profound as that produced by the automobile....”

These were not necessarily naive delusions, but reasonable projections of known trends. Between 1840 and 1940, work hours declined in every decade. From 1900 to 1940 the average work week for all manufacturing industries fell by 35 percent. In 1933 there was even a bill, known as the “Thirty-Hour Work Week Bill,” which would have established 30 hours as the standard work week. This measure, which was a response to Depression-era unemployment, passed the Senate and likely would have passed the House if business leaders had not persuaded the new Roosevelt administration to withdraw its support. Even after the bill failed, there were frequent attempts to revive it, either through legislation or collective bargaining.

Today we have moved so far away from this vision that most people are surprised to learn it ever existed.

How has this happened? This is the kind of question which provokes debate among economists, but some commonly-identified factors include cultural inertia, the declining power of labor, and the bias toward consumption in an economic system based upon growth. Schor sees increasing consumption as the pivotal stage in a seductive cycle she calls “work-and-spend.” It begins with a win-win appearance: productivity increases and the employee is rewarded with a raise. But as the new income is spent, “The employee will become habituated to this spending and incorporate it into his or her usual standard of living.” Breaking this pattern would entail different decisions in “the choice between‘time and money.’” But rarely is this choice available to American employees. According to Schor, rewarding productivity with increased income rather than shorter hours “has become the firmly entrenched‘default option.’”

Is a return to the concept of shorter work hours still possible? It will depend upon the answers to two questions: 1) Is it economically possible to maintain our current standard of living with shorter work hours? 2) Is it politically possible to institute such a change?

In his recently published The End of Work, economist Jeremy Rifkin takes on the first question by arguing that a reduction in hours is not only desirable but mandatory. The workforce cuts we are experiencing now are not “short-term adjustments” in the labor market, as some claim, but a long-term shift. “In the United States alone, corporations are eliminating more than two million jobs annually.” Restructuring corporations to take advantage of advances in communications software can decrease staffing needs 40 to 75 percent.

The jobs that will be created by computer technologies will not require enough workers to account for the masses that will be displaced. This conclusion is supported by an International Metalworkers Federation study which estimated that within 30 years as little as two percent of the world’s current labor force will be needed to meet the demand for all goods.

In short, there will no longer be enough 40-hour jobs to go around.

To date, we have dealt with the problem by eliminating jobs rather than hours which, of course, has enormous human consequences. Some argue that such sacrifices are unavoidable if American companies are to remain globally competitive. Rifkin considers this shortsighted and points out that as more people lose disposable income, we risk becoming an increasingly divided society with a large pool of unemployed and a small working elite. At that point companies will find their productivity outstripping demand, to the detriment of their bottom lines. However, if we make other choices — if we use our new technologies to shorten the work week — this looming disaster could instead be the lever that stops the treadmill.

Not all of this is theory. In Western Europe work hours are generally fewer than in the U.S., despite a similarly constrained economy. Many industrial workers in Germany have a standard 35-hour week, which is expected to spread to the rest of the labor force. In France, Germany and Great Britain, workers have four to six weeks’ annual leave. (In contrast, U.S. workers’ paid time off has declined by 15 percent since 1969.)

Experiments in reduced work time have also taken place in the United States. Historian Benjamin Hunicutt has conducted an extensive study of the Kellogg Company of Battle Creek, Michigan. In 1930 this firm went to a six-hour day with no cut in salaries in an effort to combat Depression-Era unemployment, and found to its surprise that employees were three to four percent more productive. Kellogg’s maintained this program until 1985 when, according to Hunicutt, “status anxiety” on the part of managers and older male workers brought the experiment to an end.

Some companies that are currently experimenting with shorter work hours include Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment Corporation, and United Services Automobile Association. United Services offers its employees a four-day, 38-hour week. Workers at Digital Equipment may cut back to as little as 30 hours per week and receive full benefits. Hewlett-Packard offers some employees a choice of how many and which hours they work.

The real stumbling block to shorter hours may lie in our second question — the political. Despite the positive examples of some innovative firms, many employers prefer long hours for a number of reasons which will not be easily conceded. These include the expense of fringe benefits, notions about workplace discipline, and the profitability of around-the-clock production at the lowest possible labor cost.

Cutting hours would also reduce unemployment. This touches a nerve among employers, who are aware of the part that a large unemployment pool plays in their balance of power with labor. Few of them — especially among those who have the ear of government — are likely to remain passive in the face of attempts to shake up the status quo.

Barbara Brandt of the Shorter Work-Time Group of Boston is aware of the likely opposition to workplace reform, especially in the legislative arena, given the current political climate. “Right now, with the really right-wing control of Congress, there are laws in the pipeline which would actually remove the current overtime protection and make things worse,” she warns. “Hopefully some of these guys will not still be around in two years.”

Additional resistance to a shorter work week would also come from workers themselves. This is especially true for those at the lowest-paid end of the spectrum who, because of their eroding purchasing power, find longer hours the only way of maintaining their financial footing. According to one estimate, workers now have to work 245 more hours a year just to maintain their 1973 standard of living.

Despite such drawbacks, the issue of shorter work hours refuses to fade. Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill more than ten years ago that would have phased in a 30-hour week over an eight-year period. In 1993 a second bill standardizing the 30-hour work week was introduced by Congressman Lucien E. Blackwell.

More recently, work time activists have put forward a variety of proposals. Schor would attack the work-and-spend cycle directly by requiring companies to offer employees the choice of accepting future pay increases in the form of reduced hours rather than money. Several polls have indicated that Americans would prefer this choice, including one which found that over 70 percent of U.S. workers earning over $30,000 annually said they would trade a day’s pay for a day off work each week.

Other legislation suggested by Schor would eliminate the “fringe-benefits penalty” by requiring firms to pay benefits to part-time workers on a pro-rated basis.

Brandt feels that workaholism should be recognized as a social disorder, with campaigns promoting awareness of its destructiveness and of the social benefits that would result from working less.

Rifkin is calling outright for a shift to a 30-hour week, with no pay cuts, phased in over the next ten years. He has suggested several ways government could make this more attractive to business, such as paying the payroll taxes of firms that go to a 30-hour week. This proposal is currently being studied in France, where its advocates point to the fact that shorter work shifts would increase the number of people employed. This would mean fewer people receiving relief payments, and more contributing to the income tax base, which would offset the government’s cost of assuming the payroll taxes.

Will such proposals ever take hold? The answer will hinge not only on their viability, but on their level of popular support. The question of work hours still remains an invisible issue, perhaps deeply felt, but unconnected in most people’s minds to the realm of social policy. An individual running for any office in America could conceivably never be asked a single question on this issue. Candidates do not even find it necessary to develop a position.

In hopes of changing this, grass-roots groups are springing up around the country, trying to spread awareness of the issue of work time and put it back on the public agenda. In addition to the Shorter Work-Time Group of Boston, such groups include the North American Network for Shorter Hours of Work (co-chaired by Juliet Schor and former Senator Eugene McCarthy); Nine to Five/SEIU, in Milwaukee; Jobs for All, in New York City; and New Ways to Work, in San Francisco.

“The American public cares about this issue deeply,” says Brandt, who foresees a possible bandwagon awaiting the politician or party choosing to take up the cause. “It’s out there simmering. I wish they would wake up.”

If that happens perhaps we will come to look upon our current epoch with the same abhorrence with which we now view the early Industrial Revolution, with its 14-hour days and children chained to their machines. But the future does not improve automatically. If the latest creations of our genius have the power to liberate us, they can also foster dangerous divisions, casting most of us into either idle poverty or mindless, frenzied activity. A more palatable fruit of our labor might be, as Hunicutt put it, “not pop tarts but time” — unencumbered, unexplored time.

Schor, Juliet B., The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
Roediger, David R. and Foner, Philip S., Our Own Time: a History of American Labor and the Working Day (Greenwood Press, 1989).
Rifkin, Jeremy, The End of Work: the Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-market Era (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995).
Coile, Zachary, “No More 9-to-5,” San Francisco Examiner, November 5, 1995.

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