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
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
~ Employers reap an economic benefit from longer hours and
any attempt to reduce them will be met with stiff opposition.
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
living...in 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
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.
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?
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.)
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
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.
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
“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.
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.