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It’s Time to Shorten the American Workweek

A shorter workweek requires a radical reimagining of how we conceive of work.

Perhaps one of the rallying cries of the 21st-century labor movement could be for the decommodification of time — for our time to be returned to us to do with as we wish. 

Americans are one of the most overworked populations in the world. With the average worker clocking 47 hours a week, Americans work more hours per year than almost any other industrialized country — 423 more than German workers, 248 more than workers in the United Kingdom, and 266 more hours a year than French workers, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics. The United States is also the only industrialized country without national parental leave benefits or legally mandated paid vacation. Most European countries require at least 20 days of paid holiday and vacation time — the French actually get an entire month of annual vacation. Can you imagine?

As with a wide variety of different workers’ rights, the United States lies well behind the rest of the industrialized world. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, workers in the United States were once on the front lines of the struggle for a shortened workweek. Back in the early days of industrial capitalism, it was not uncommon for workers to work anywhere between 10-16 hours a day. But a bloody, centuries-long battle fought by socialists, unionists, and other similar groups in the United States won us the 40-hour workweek in 1938.

As labor’s power grew through the early 20th century, and as technological innovations completely altered the nature of the workplace, people began to fantasize about working even less than 40 hours. Prominent economists like John Maynard Keynes were even making utopian prophecies that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks in the 21st century.

Keynes’s prediction wasn’t based so much on the continued victories for labor as it was on a belief in increased productivity. Perhaps due to automation, or perhaps in combination with other amazing human achievements, steady increases in worker productivity would make it so that workers could simply work less and less until the weekday/weekend ratio was flipped: two days of work, five days off.

Keynes was one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, and his ideas were taken very seriously. But it’s painfully clear that his prediction was dead wrong. Not only are we not working 15-hour weeks, but we’re also working more hours than we have any time since the post-war era. And it’s not just here in the United States. No country has a 15-hour workweek — nowhere even comes close. Despite many technological advances and a steady increase in productivity, we’re working longer and longer hours. What happened?

“It was such a struggle for the early organized working class to originally shorten the workweek,” economic analyst Doug Henwood explained to Truthout. “But since then, it’s just completely fallen off the radar as a demand of the labor movement. And of course, organized labor is so desperate at this point anyway that they’re not really making many demands. But even just that imagination of what we can do with a shorter workweek — it’s just largely disappeared from the conversation.”

Worker productivity has continued to climb higher and higher over the last century, and although this trend was matched with an increase in wages (at least up until the 1970s), it never translated into a reduction in work hours. “We don’t see payoff from increased productivity in the form of more leisure — it’s just more and more work,” Henwood explained. “The tendency of capitalism, especially in the American system, is just to work more and harder.”

The disconnect between productivity and a reduction of work hours can perhaps best be understood by examining the material conditions of American capitalism — both how they manifest economically as well as how they translate into social values.

Most importantly perhaps is to understand that, as an employer, it doesn’t actually make sense to reduce your workers’ hours because, “In general, the more you work, the more money the boss makes,” Henwood explained. “And I think that’s the fundamental driving force of it. They want to get as much out of workers as possible.”

The class conflict between employers and employees is a core component of capitalism and helps to explain why any reduction in work hours generally had to be fought for inch by inch. But there are some unique features of American capitalism which help to explain why the United States is so far behind any of the other industrialized nations in terms of work hours.

“Employers have lots of reasons why they want to keep workers working longer hours, and in the U.S., there are a couple of structural features that really exacerbate that — one of which is health care,” Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, told Truthout.

In the United States, health care is paid at the level of the business and on a per person basis, so it makes sense for businesses to want fewer employees because they then have to pay those benefits to fewer people.

But it’s not just health care. “Another important part of it is that the U.S. developed a big salaried labor force last century,” Schor explained. “Salaried workers are paid a fixed amount, so if they work longer hours, the firm doesn’t have to pay them more. There really are just many different inbuilt biases toward long hours of work in the United States.”

With the incentives for longer hours baked into the system itself, it’s not hard to understand why increased productivity and technological advances have not translated into shorter hours. Capitalism is not democratic. Those at the top have free reign to decide how to run their firms, and it’s no surprise that the benefits of worker productivity and technological advances have been captured and hoarded at the top.

“Surveys actually show that workers have wanted to use productivity growth and technological change to give themselves more free time, but firms just don’t give them that option,” Schor told Truthout. “There were lots of predictions, from Keynes all the way on even into the 1970s where people were predicting that work was going to disappear. And of course, we have another round of that today — ‘work is going to disappear with artificial intelligence’ — and it really fails to recognize the extent to which firms set hours of work.”

Another significant factor contributing to longer hours in the United States is the way that Americans view work itself. Hyperproductivity and overwork are celebrated in American culture and often seen as marks of greatness. This emphasis on prioritizing work over all other aspects of life is a value that has been carefully manufactured by those whose interests lie in maximizing worker productivity — and it’s worked with great success.

“It feels like nose to the grindstone until you have no nose left,” Henwood told Truthout. “We’ve become such creatures of the capitalist mindscape that we can’t imagine anything beyond it. There’s an exhaustion of people’s mental and spiritual life as a result of this focus on work and the way people define themselves in their work and career. It’s just had such a bankrupt way of looking at the world.”

When you look at the data, it’s clear that working longer hours has all kinds of negative effects on individuals and on society as a whole. Studies have shown that the amount of work expected from the U.S. workforce contributes to sleep issues, obesity and a weakened immune system. Working longer hours has also been linked to depression and heart-related illness. We are, as it turns out, literally working ourselves to death.

The benefits of shorter hours stretch beyond just the health and well-being of individual workers — There’s a social multiplier effect that could result in many benefits to society as a whole. Imagine all of the time that could be devoted to strengthening community ties, to civic engagement and political participation, to the arts, and a whole myriad of other activities that make life rich and meaningful.

Shorter hours could also be a powerful policy tool when it comes to climate change. Current levels of economic growth and consumption are unsustainable if we want a habitable earth, and one of the best ways to reduce growth is to simply work less. “If we’re going to flatline or even start to degrow without mass unemployment, you’ve got to have a shorter working week,” Schor told Truthout.

A recent report titled “The Ecological Limits of Work,” suggests that many countries would have to drastically reduce work hours in order to stay under 2 degrees of global warming. The U.K., for example, would have to move to a 9-hour workweek, and Sweden to a 12-hour workweek.

A shorter working week would also distribute paid work more evenly across the population, allowing for paid and unpaid work to be more equally distributed between men and women, for example, and for more people to engage in unpaid care work for children or the elderly.

Although not on the political agenda nearly as much as it was in previous centuries, talk about shortening the workweek is starting to make appearances here and there — mostly outside of the U.S.

Finland’s newly elected prime minister Sanna Marin recently made a statement advocating for a flexible six-hour day, saying: “People deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture. This could be the next step for us in working life.” Finland’s neighbor Sweden also just recently completed a study exploring the effects of a six-hour day in one of its largest cities, Gothenburg.

There are other examples of firms or municipalities that have experimented with the idea in one form or another, many of which have found successful outcomes — even seeing higher worker productivity. And the demand for a shorter workweek is also regaining some momentum in the United States, with grassroots organizations like 4DayWeekUs starting to advocate for the idea on the national level.

But if a shortened workweek does ever remerge as a core component of the labor movement in the United States, it would have to be part of a much broader list of demands that tackle issues like health care, wage stagnation, and climate change. It would also have to be part of a significantly enlarged social democratic program instituted by the state that will provide people with the means to have their needs met. Most significantly, it would mean changes have to be implemented in a just way, perhaps through some kind of universal basic income program that would guarantee certain standards of living.

And finally, it would also require a radical reimagining of how we conceive of work. Not just by rejecting the soul-sucking, back-breaking work ethic that has been imposed upon us by from above, but also in how we view the relationship between work and time more generally. Perhaps one of the rallying cries of the 21st-century labor movement could be for the decommodification of time — for our time to be returned to us to do with as we wish.

“We’re only here for a certain number of days, and it’s a little sad to spend it all on the job,” Henwood told Truthout. “Just think of all the additional things people could do if we didn’t have to work so damn much. It really would be really nice, wouldn’t it?”

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