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The strange quasi-immortality of the 40-hour work week

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Nearly a century ago now, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay that predicted with almost uncanny prescience how much economic growth would take place over the next 100 years. In the midst of a worldwide depression, during which many people were predicting the end of capitalism, a long period of serious economic decline etc., Keynes instead projected that the economies of developed nations would be four to eight times larger per capita a century hence. Indeed he used the high end of that estimate to make further predictions, and his high end estimate has proven startlingly accurate: the American economy is in fact eight times larger per capita today than it was in 1930.

Keynes’s further predictions, however, proved to be completely wrong: He imagined that by 2030 people in what we would now call developed economies would be working an average of 15 hours a week, since it would obviously be insane for people to work the same hours in an economy that was eight times wealthier as they were working at the present time.

And it is kind of insane, but here we are: by the 1930s the 40-hour work week was becoming standard: in the USA it was legally mandated in 1940 by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required overtime to be paid to workers who exceeded 40 hours per week. Yet the FLSA marked what turned out to be the very end of a process by which the 80 to 100-hour work weeks that were common 80 years earlier were eventually cut in half, in large part of course by workers organizing and successfully demanding more humane hours. (It also helped that industrialists like Henry Ford discovered the sharply declining marginal utility of labor at hours much beyond 40 per week).

Well here we are 80 years after that, and the five-day 40-hour work week has, remarkably enough, remained practically untouched ever since.

This is really bizarre when you think about it: per capita GDP in the US is six times higher now than it was in 1940, while median family income is three times higher (mean income is of course much higher than that).

If the point of labor is to become wealthy enough to use it to buy leisure, then why has the fantastic ongoing explosion of wealth in developed economies, and especially in the US economy — the same pattern is largely though not as pervasively seen in Europe, where there has been a modest decline in work hours — failed to lead to shorter work weeks over the past 80 years?

Jill Filipovic points out how little sense this makes:

We are three years into a pandemic that upended work life (and life-life) as many of us knew it. We are living in an era in which out-of-work demands, most especially parenting and other forms of caregiving, are more extreme than ever. And we are living in a country that, unlike other nations, provides meager support as its people strive to balance it all: a slim majority of Americans and a strong majority of workers still get health insurance from our employers, there is no universal childcare on offer and we have no guaranteed paid parental leave – let alone enough sick days or vacation that we are empowered to take, even when offered them.

No wonder so many workers report being fed up and burned out. No wonder so many women, who continue to do the lion’s share of the nation’s parenting, drop out of the workforce.

None of that bodes well for the US economy, let alone human health and wellbeing. A four-day workweek isn’t a magic bullet. But it may be one piece of a larger set of changes that Americans desperately need. And Maryland, hopefully, can take one tiny step forward with this bill, which would let a handful of workers and employers experiment with what may be the future of work, while gathering crucial information that will, hopefully, lead the rest of us forward.

This is in the context of a Maryland pilot program that provides tax breaks to encourage employers to move to a four-day 32-hour work week, given recent research suggesting that, as Henry Ford discovered a century ago, the marginal utility of labor declines with more work — and not just at 50 and 60 hours per week, but also between 30 and 40.

The 40-hour work week has, given subsequent economic and social developments, become a weird totemic atavism: a kind of perverse symbol of American work culture’s traditional embrace of, among other things, the Protestant work ethic, and its ongoing denial of the fact that enormous amounts of unpaid labor, in the form of child care and other domestic work, have to continue to be done around the demands of the paid labor system.

Hopefully one longterm consequence of the pandemic will be to use work from home technologies to undermine the 40-hour work week among the professional classes, which in turn may help what remains of the labor movement in this country to push against it in sectors of the economy where remote work is not yet an option. (I hope Erik blogs about this issue, as obviously he knows far more about it than I do).

In any event, a first step is to point out, as Filipovic does, that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about the five-day forty-hour work week, and that to the contrary it would have deeply shocked observers as otherwise prescient as Keynes if they had been to see how bizarrely tenacious it has remained in our economy and culture.

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