Shadley: The 40-Hour Workweek Isn’t Working

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(Photo by Abu Asib | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Will Shadley , Opinion Writer

 

The Ford Motor Company shifted from a 48-hour workweek to a 40-hour workweek in 1914 — and for 107 years in America, we haven’t seriously considered the possibility of reducing the standard hours of work for a full-time American worker. The 40-hour workweek was created at a time when the majority of workers had physical labor jobs, not the office and service jobs we have today. Henry Ford cut the workweek to 40 hours because he “felt” that people might be more productive that way and so workers could enjoy the goods they made.

Now, we have a better scientific answer to how many hours someone can work in a day when their work involves their brain — four hours is the answer. On average, full-time American employees spend 6.27 hours per day working.

With many of the country’s physically demanding jobs becoming automated out of existence and one-third of the jobs lost from COVID-19 never coming back, work that involves the brain is left as one of the only options for work. We are simply running out of useful and productive ways to have Americans actually work 40 hour weeks — and it shows.

In “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory,” anthropologist David Graeber argues that roughly 40% of people have what he calls a bullshit job. Bullshit jobs are jobs where people feel that nothing would functionally change if their work didn’t exist. He offers up the example of a receptionist who takes, on average, a single call every single day. The only reason her job — which involves roughly 15 minutes a day of work — exists is that her boss wouldn’t want someone to walk into the office and wonder why they don’t have a receptionist. 

If you’ve ever worked in a student job on campus, you might have experienced something similar. I was a teaching assistant during my sophomore year and roughly half of my office hours were spent working on my own homework. Granted, those hours being available for students to come in has some value — but that might just be me trying to rationalize my former paycheck. 

Not all jobs are bullshit, of course, and those that aren’t are likely to fall into two categories: creative work and, the term we are all now familiar with, essential work. The latter is at risk of being automated away with the advent of self-driving trucks, AI-driven call centers and increased manufacturing automation. There will certainly be some jobs that emerge as a result of automation, but those jobs are much more likely to involve the brain and workers will have to be retrained in an entirely different field.

These new workers would merge with the other category, creative work, which we’ve already seen is best capped at four hours a day for maximum productivity, and most of these jobs come up with bullshit job-like aspects to fill in the remaining 20-24 hours a week. The average American “works” about 44 hours a week, but we’re running out of stuff for them to do. A fully employed, productive workforce is impossible while maintaining a 40-hour workweek. One of them has to go.

Our three options, then, are to have a significant number of Americans out of work, create a lot more bullshit jobs or to abandon the 40-hour workweek for something significantly lower. 

The first two options are unfavorable for obvious reasons, but let’s explore them just a little. With the first option, we’ll have knowledgeable workers forced to work 40-hour weeks to make a middle-class income, leading to significant mental, physical and emotional health problems. At the same time, we’ll have an ever-growing class of the unemployed — likely living below or near the poverty line. 

An economy filled with bullshit jobs, however, is not much better. Economically, we can expect more people to be somewhat secure, but the lack of fulfillment and countless hours bound to a meaningless task doesn’t make this an appealing long-term solution. Sure, people would have their needs met if we formally paid them for doing nothing, but when all of your time is occupied by necessarily unfulfilling activities, it becomes nearly impossible to live a fulfilling life. Wouldn’t it be much easier to just pay them for the work they actually do and let them have the rest of the time for the things they actually want to be working on?

Of course, if we are to cut the American workweek down to something along the lines of 5-20 hours a week, we will need to meaningfully change how we calculate wages. As it stands, 12 million Americans working full-time are living in poverty. Cutting their hours in half, without more than doubling their wages, will only lead to greater inequities between the working and capitalist classes. 

Admittedly, a lot of these logistical and moral issues would only need to be addressed if we began seriously considering shortening the 40-hour workweek. And we should.

Arguably the most important economist of the modern era, John Maynard Keynes believed that by the end of the twentieth century, industrialized nations would see technological improvements that would make a 15-hour workweek the norm. Keynes was right about the technology, but we’re still working 40-hour weeks. Now, with the scientific, social and economic reasons for making the switch to shorter workweeks apparent, it’s time we drop our 100-year tradition and start “working” less so that our society can start working more.

 

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@shadleywill