The Future of the Forty Hour Week

Over at the NY Times Room for Debate feature, they’ve got a discussion about the 40-hour work week that’s worth giving a damn about. Five of the six writers there have something worthwhile to say, while the sixth is clearly insane. It touches on a lot of things we love.

Lynn Parramore of Alternet talks about the founding fathers dreaming of a time where leisure would define our hours more than work:

“Americans once talked about building a society where we could be free from constant work. John Adams wrote that he would know we had achieved a secure state if his grandchildren were free to study poetry and music. Thomas Jefferson agreed, including the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. America’s founders envisioned a land where we could enjoy the free time to pursue our intellectual, spiritual and communal interests. This essential liberty would make us more engaged and tolerant citizens.”

Despite steady productivity gains since WWII, the full-time work week hasn’t changed to reflect those gains. For salaried white-collar workers, it’s getting worse. Fernando Lozano, a Pomona College economist, talks about how educated workers in higher paying jobs are the most likely to work more than 50 hours a week. But if you are poor:

“In contrast, low-wage workers are less likely today than 30 years ago to work more than 50 hours a week, perhaps because they do not have the option to choose their work schedules. These are the same workers who have had the greatest decrease in wages during the same time period.”

Jefferson R. Cowie, a professor of labor history at Cornell University echoes this:

“‘Is it time to rethink the 40 hour week?’ Yes, it’s time to think about bringing it back.”

The well-off are overworked because they work salary or for themselves, while the poor work hourly rates. Hello, inequality gap.

Anna Coote, the head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation in London argues that a shorter work week would make us more competitive, not less:

“Some say it can’t be done because wages are too low. So let’s raise wages. No one should have to work long hours just to get by. Some say it’s uncompetitive. But there’s no match between average working hours and the strength of a country’s economy. The Netherlands and Germany have a shorter workweek than the United States and Britain. But the Dutch and German economies are stronger, not weaker. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour. They are under less stress, they get sick less often and they make a more loyal and committed workforce.”

Dharmesh Shah, co-founder and CTO at HubSpot, values output more than time spent and argues that top talent does, too:

“Every employee has 24 hours in a day and chooses to spend some of those hours with you. Exceptional employees count their successes in code shipped, projects completed, people inspired and impact, not the minutes they’ve spent at their desks. Companies should hire and manage accordingly. Don’t watch the clock; watch your business. Your employees, customers and investors will thank you for it.”

So, really, it’s a lot of people looking at the 40 hour work week and saying maybe it doesn’t apply anymore, maybe we should revalue leisure time because it makes people more productive, happier, more engaged citizens. There’s a lot of ideas here that mesh with each other and sound pretty reasonable, right? Hold on, I did say there was one insane person. Amity Shlaes, board chair of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and Forbes columnist:

“Americans would willingly work longer hours, earn more and be more productive if their marginal tax rates were lowered.”

Yeah, that’s what’s keeping everybody from working more. The increased tax rate in the next tax bracket. Look, not everybody works an hourly wage. And those that do, dollars to donuts, do not get to choose how many hours they work. Your manager at Denny’s or Walmart or whatever sets your schedule so that you get less than the minimum needed for health coverage. If you need more money and more hours, you get a second job.

And tax rates! Who the hell considers tax rates when they are trying to make rent? The folks that have a burr up their backside about tax rates are already doing pretty well. No way are they going to work harder on their book or company or law-talking gig so that it pushes them up from $200k to $250k, right? That’s the reason nobody makes more than $250k a year, right?

The reason nobody really wants to cut the standard work week down is because of the prevailing protestant work ethic that considers work itself to be a virtue and leisure to be sin. It would also require companies to share their productivity gains with workers and raise hourly salaries.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work more, whether you are hourly or salaried. The problem is that the current culture demands that everyone work more. The 40-hour work week is a mere memory for a lot of people. For salaried folks, it would be a nice scaling back from the amount of time they currently put in. For hourly earners, 40 hours is the ideal amount to work and still earn a living, whether than means they want more hours at their part-time gig or less hours at their multiple jobs. Labor movements fought for this very right. It’d be nice if we got that right back.

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Filed under 40 hour week, american dream, leisure time

Leave a Reply