History of Shorter Work Week: A Shorter Work Week Is Not a New Concept

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Recently, there has been a growing call for the shortening of the work week with a considerable number both for the idea with some against it. With the possible benefits posed by the shortening of the work week, it does seem to make sense; though the debate is still ongoing.

What a lot of people might not know is that this debate is not new. Throughout history, there have been calls and efforts geared towards shortening the number of hours employees work in a week. This article will look at the major movements made towards shortening the work week to what it is today, as well as practices that are being predicted to be put in place;

Ford and Kellogg's: the Early Pace Setters

As things currently stand, the standard work week is 40 hours; translating to a daily period of eight hours for five days. However, it has not always been this way. In 1900, a factory worker would spend 53 hours every week.

In 1926, Ford Motor Company became one of the first American companies to adopt the 40-hour work week for the workers in their factories. This policy was later extended to their office workers in August that year.

Ford did this after having upped the minimum wage it paid their factory workers from $2.34 for nine-hour days to a minimum wage of $5 for eight-hour days. This immediately saw an increase in productivity and company loyalty.

The vision was shared among the company's top officials with Edsel Ford, who was made the president of the company in 1919 also supporting the move. He explained that every person needs more than one day for rest and recreation. Edsel believed that for someone to live properly, they should be given more time with their family.

Though they shortened workers' time, they believed that the move would further boost production. Since the time workers had to rest had been increased, they reasoned that they would put in more effort during those 40 hours. Soon, manufacturers in the country and eventually all over the world followed Ford's lead.

One of those companies was Kellogg's. They shifted to the shorter work week on the 1st of December, 1930. The Great Depression gave the company the perfect opportunity to experiment with the idea. They reduced the workday to six hours while simultaneously giving the workers a 12.5% hourly raise.

During the Second World War, the company made the switch to a 48-hour work week with the promise of reverting to the six-hour shift once the emergency ended. Most employees preferred the six-hour shifts and made their feelings felt with 87% of women and 71% of men voting for the option.

However, by 1957, a majority of the departments had opted to switch to the eight-hour shift with the last department voting to adopt the eight-hour workday in 1985. By this time, the Fair Labour Standards Act passed in 1938 had set the maximum working hours every week at 40; making it the social and cultural norm.

Economist Predictions

With the early changes towards shorter work weeks, some economists such as John Maynard Keynes in 1930 predicted that as humanity became more prosperous, they would opt to work even fewer hours. He assumed that the change in technology and improvement in production would ultimately lead to 15-hour work weeks.

His reasoning was based on the fact that by producing more with less, humanity's needs would be met through less amount of work leading to more leisure time. There has been increased prosperity, but the working hours have been at large, kept the same.

Keynes got one thing right; we are continuously producing more with less. In fact, we are twice as productive as he predicted with the digital revolution increasing the amount an individual can do. Today's office worker can do what the 1970 worker took a full day to accomplish in one and a half hours. One industry that has benefited from this revolution includes agriculture, with a 46% productivity increase from 1993 to 2004.

However, these improvements in productivity have not yet translated into few working hours. The opposite has happened; instead of reducing working hours, productivity gains have led to calls for even greater productivity gains.

One reason Keynes dream has not been realized is because the gains from productivity have been absorbed into a lot of the companies' bottom line. While wage growth has stayed mostly stagnant, CEO pay has risen by 937% since 1978 compared to the 10.2% increase in the average wage.

An increase in productivity should either result in increased wages or shorter working hours at a similar wage level though a reduction in wages would still be acceptable.

Although the majority of the current debate for the further shortening of the work week is centred on work-family balance, workers without families are sure to welcome the shorter work weeks as well.

Economists also believe that shorter hours would benefit workers who would be left without employment by fast technological change. Shorter work weeks could help to spread the currently available jobs around.

A few states in America used this approach during the recession to keep more people on the job but at shorter hours; ultimately keeping the rate of unemployment low. While shorter hours could mean lower pay, 28% would give up a day's pay for one less day of work, this according to a survey report published in the Monthly Labour Review.

Economists advise that any efforts to reduce the work week to be phased in slowly allowing for flexibility not only for employees but for employers as well. They further believe that if the shift is done the right way, there could be little or no reduction in wages earned. When Ford first reduced work weeks, he did so without cutting wages.

A reduction in the number of hours worked in a week is expected to have multiple benefits some of them being the improvement of the quality of life, better work-life balance, and in the long run, more job opportunities. Having employees who are motivated is key if you want to achieve your objectives. Post jobs on our platform, to reduce the burden on your employees, and to get more done with their time. You can also subscribe to our newsletter to learn more about a shorter work week.

Nicholas Rempel

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