Is the 40-hour work week now obsolete?
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Is the 40-hour work week now obsolete?

27 Feb 2018

For a long time, the 40-hour work week has been considered a gold standard for optimising productivity. Is it time to rethink how we approach it?

In early February 2018, news outlets around the world reported on the news that 900,000 German metal and engineering workers had won the right to a 28-hour work week following industrial action.

IG Metall, Europe’s largest trade union, won its workers the right to work a six-hour day. Workers can opt for this schedule for two years, before returning to the original seven-hour work day.

Future Human

Though isolated to particular industries, it is expected that these kinds of changes will soon sweep across Germany due to the ubiquity of the desire for more private or leisure time, even at the expense of lower pay.

It’s debatable whether this is the harbinger of the new normal, but these sweeping changes do raise questions about whether the 40-hour work week will soon meet its demise.

A brief history of the 40-hour work week

The idea of having an eight-hour work day, interestingly, has been around for hundreds of years. It was first dreamed up by the philosopher Thomas More, who expressed that eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of sleep would be his personal ideal.

Little did he know that the eight-hour day, and the 40-hour week in general, would soon become a culturally ingrained reality.

The 40-hour work week was born out of trade union rumblings during the industrial revolution. Companies wanted to maximise the output of their factories by keeping the places running almost constantly. As a result, 10 to 16-hour workdays became the norm.

Any modern worker will intuitively know that working these kinds of shifts – particular in a factory setting, where a part of the job generally involves operating potentially dangerous equipment – quickly leads to exhaustion, decreased productivity, burnout, health issues and even accidents.

So, a British socialist named Robert Owen, who had been a labour legislation and trade union activist since 1815, first mounted a campaign to regulate the working day, his logic being that in order for employees to be productive, they needed eight hours of work, and the same in recreational time and rest.

Between the latter half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, legislation was enacted around the globe to secure the eight-hour work day. A 40-hour work week was one of the central tenets of Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous post-Great Depression New Deal.

Since then, the authority of the 40-hour work week has largely gone unchallenged. Is there any proof that it necessarily works?

How productive are we?

Many decry the eight-hour day because it ostensibly forces us to work long, uninterrupted periods when we should instead be advocating for bursts of productivity followed by frequent, short rest periods.

People haven’t really achieved a consensus on which day of the week is the most productive. While a study by Redbooth indicated that Monday is the most productive day, a survey of HR professionals by Accountemps saw Tuesday rise to the top. In any case, both seem to indicate that the start of the week is when we do the bulk of our work.

In turn, Friday unsurprisingly arises as the least productive day. This makes sense, as the excited anticipation of the weekend coupled with tiredness from the week makes it unlikely that anything of significance will be done right before people clock out.

Some commentators have suggested that it would make the most sense to trim the fat off the working week and opt for a four-day week, a real-world manifestation of the ‘work smart, not hard’ maxim.

Melissa Dahl wrote for The Cut in 2014, describing US work culture: “The US is one of the most productive nations on the planet, second only to Luxembourg – but Americans work almost 20pc more hours.”

A worrying trend

Yet, if anything, workers don’t seem to be lobbying for shorter hours – quite the opposite, as they’re logging billions worth of free overtime.

Worryingly so, overwork is now being worn as a badge of honour by employees. So, why is it that employees seem to desire one thing, but do the other?

It’s understandable that the seismic shifts taking place in the jobs market have engendered a degree of uncertainty. The increase in contract work and the rise of the ‘gig economy’, though they offer flexibility, mean that job and salary security are less widespread than they once were.

What about the Swedes?

Sweden has emerged as an interesting case study for the effects of decreasing hours. Just last year, the country concluded a limited two-year trial of six-hour days for its workers.

Employees lauded the trial, saying that they were happier, had more energy and achieved far better work-life balance. The employees were more productive, logged less sick leave and seem to be in better health overall.

The trial also created more jobs because businesses ended up hiring more to cover the hours not being worked by core staff.

However, centre-right opponents in Sweden filed to have the trial conclude prematurely, decrying that the programme wasn’t economically sustainable and that taxpayer money shouldn’t be funnelled into such endeavours. In total, the programme cost 12m Swedish kronor (€1.19m).

Indeed, the government conceded that the programme would be too expensive to roll out on a national scale, but the benefits to employee welfare are unquestionable.

What does the future hold?

So, it remains to be seen what the future will hold, though I guess I have a few ideas.

Thoughts of the impending automation revolution tend to strike fear into workers because there’s a widespread worry about how artificial intelligence will impact jobs. Personally, I don’t believe any robot is going to take your job; if anything, increasing automation could well play into making shorter work weeks a reality.

Automation generally leads to increased productivity, which in turn generates more revenue. Historically, companies have used this capital to vie for a greater market share, resulting in more jobs being created. Perhaps this time around, automation-generated revenue could be used to fund productivity-increasing reductions in the work week.

Equally, if the speculation about a proposed universal basic income turns out to be true, it could also transpire that workers opt to take a pay cut in return for a shorter work week because the basic income supplements salaries enough to make this option more fiscally viable.

In any case, it looks as if the 40-hour week will soon be a relic of the past – the question is, what will it be replaced with?

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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