An idea, often predicted through the early 1970s (in other words, during the Winning by Default Years when relative American prosperity and job availability were at their highest), but almost dropped since then, is shorter work hours. For most of the nation’s history, people spent much more time than now earning a living. When those in younger generations asked me why there were no professional sports before the 1800s, I told them, to their surprise, that people then simply didn’t have the time to go to games. Six and even seven-day workweeks were the norm, and retirement, as we know it, wasn’t even invented until late that century.
Improvements, within industrialization in particular, did take hold. Around 1870, a slogan, used by labor union people pushing for what are now most often the official-length days, was “Eight hours labor, eight hours rest, and eight hours for what we will.” Yet the forty-hour workweek was not official for federal government jobs until 1938, and is still the case now – 75 years later.
Obviously, there is no comparison between the automation, globalization, and efficiency levels of three-quarters of a century ago and today. Huge numbers of positions have gone away entirely, and the great bulk of those surviving require far less time for similar duties. Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, has offset much of the gain, but generally there is no comparison between how much gets done today and during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. So, with nothing magical about today’s workweek length, expectations of even shorter times, some as low as a few hours per week, were long common.
So why have we been not only stuck on 40 hours since the 1970s, but even for many workers gone above that? The reason is simple – health insurance. With coverage being charged per person, it becomes in the interest of employers to have fewer people working longer apiece. National health plans are the reason why full-time working hours in Europe have been drifting toward 30 per week.
A shorter American workweek would serve several constructive purposes:
1. Spreading work between more people would offset some of the problems with fewer jobs. Indeed, a common rationale for the 40-hour week was to combat unemployment.
2. More people would have money to spend. One hundred million people earning $50,000 apiece would stimulate the economy more, not to mention require less in social services, than 50 million with $100,000 and the same number with almost nothing.
3. There would be less social and organizational pressure to work longer hours. Many times in my corporate career I saw people influencing others to work more, simply because it was the norm. They usually did not do much more actual work – at least one study of cubicle jobs showed that those at the job 60 hours per week accomplished only about 20% more than those working 40.
4. The quality of our lives would be improved. Back when jobs were much easier to get, even the best workers saw putting in fewer hours as a goal and a value. With labor becoming less and less central to peoples’ lives, that idea should be encouraged to come back.
So how can we get the shrinking set of people with jobs to work less? Perhaps the best sequester would be to cut both the hours and the pay, maybe 10% of each, of government workers. For private companies, the problem of health care would be the key. With the number of positions permanently shrinking, it will eventually be mandatory for the United States to disconnect health care from them. When we do that, we will get, in addition to those much discussed, the benefits of breaking free of what will someday be seen as a long-obsolete, and unnecessary, amount of working time.