In honor of yesterday being Labor Day, let’s talk about a practice that’s often taken for granted, a standard so engrained in our culture that many of us grew up without ever second-guessing it: the eight-hour workday.
There’s nothing scientific about the eight-hour workday. No evidence exists to suggest that we are most productive when we work eight hours per day.
Then why is it the standard, the norm?
It all started during the Industrial Revolution with a man named Robert Owen (1771-1858), one of the early fathers of socialism. Working conditions, particularly those of factory workers, were so poor in Great Britain at the time that Owen felt a responsibility to implement sweeping reforms. His attempts at reform included raising the minimum age of factory workers to ten years old and reducing hours. A balanced life at the time, Owen thought, would consist of eight hours of work, eight hours of relaxation, and eight hours of sleep or relaxation.
In an attempt to prove that factory owners could make a profit without treating employees like livestock, Owen bought a cotton mill in Scotland and began practicing what he was preaching. He increased the minimum age of workers, reduced hours, and offered sick pay.
It wasn’t until 1914 that Owen’s ideas took hold in the United States, and, believe it or not, by one of America’s greatest capitalists, Henry Ford. Ford, who is often credited as being one of the most important driving forces behind the creation of an American middle class, reduced hours and increased pay to $5 per day, which was unheard of at the time. Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years.
“Not only was it a matter of social justice, Ford wrote, but paying high wages was also smart business. When wages are low, uncertainty dogs the marketplace and growth is weak. But when pay is high and steady, Ford asserted, business is more secure because workers earn enough to become good customers. They can afford to buy Model Ts,” reported the The New York Times in a 2012 article titled “When Capitalists Cared.”
Since most of us aren’t working in factories, and it’s 2014 not 1914, it’s worth questioning why the eight-hour workday is still the standard.
History tells us that mankind’s perpetual quest to reduce mandatory working hours has resulted in much of the art, literature, and technology responsible for making us who we are today. Instead of spending all of our time chasing around herds of bison, let’s domesticate animals and plant crops, said one early human to another. Brilliant. Now they could stay in one place. Communication evolved. The idea of recreation was formally introduced.
Free time breeds new ideas, new ideas lead to innovation, and innovation moves us forward.
That’s what history tells us, but what does experience tell us? Experience tells us that if you command your employees to sit in their seats until precisely 5 o’clock, at around 4 o’clock, give or take 15 minutes, they’ll all be on BuzzFeed.
Maybe instead of drawing a false correlation between time spent working and productivity, we should focus solely on productivity. Granted, that wouldn’t always mean reducing hours. In some cases, it might mean increasing them. It just seems that we’d collectively get more done if we were always working towards goals instead of fulfilling hourly requirements.
This mentality is already being adopted in some industries, most notably in the tech startup space, where some founders are doing away with the eight-hour workday altogether.
Others are aggressively pushing for the adoption of four-hour workday. Unfortunately, I see many of the same problems with a four-day workday as with an eight-hour workday, the most obvious of which is the focus on time rather spent rather than work produced.
While we celebrate America’s working force, we should also each spend some time thinking about how we can make it better.