For most of US history, we have steadily reduced the workweek. For 150 years, we shortened both the work day and workweek as technology advanced. But that gradual reduction stalled in the middle of the 20th century. What happened? Why? Despite more technology and labor-saving devices designed to make us more productive, we’re working harder and harder.
Here’s a summary of the history of the US workweek.
1776 – Agriculture Dominates
The typical workweek is 12-hours/day, 6 or 7 days/week — longer than 80 hours. For agricultural workers (the bulk of the working population) this includes 8-10 hours of hard labor plus 2-3 hours of additional farm or craft work. Workdays are longer in summer and shorter in winter, varying with the length of the day.
1810–1840 – Industrial Revolution
Steam power propels the industrial revolution. At the same time, the hours of agricultural workers may actually increase (due to more labor-intensive practices such as dairy farming). A surplus of labor in manufacturing leads to low pay and long hours, as manufacturers dictate work conditions. Gas lighting in factories enables employers to lengthen the workweek by extending long summer hours into winter. Factory workers regularly put in 12-hour days and 68-hour workweeks. By 1840 the workweek in the major mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts averages 74 hours.
1840s – Labor Unions and Shorter Hours Movements Emerge
The first shorter hours movement emerges, and early labor unions promote a10-hour day. Several states pass laws limiting the work day to 10 hours, but these laws are neither observed nor enforced.
In 1840, President Martin Van Buren issues an executive order requiring a 10-hour day for all federal employees engaged in manual work.
1850s – Labor Becomes a Force; Concept of Leisure
The emerging labor movement pushes for shorter hours as a way to boost wages. Shorter hours create a demand for more workers, and this demand for labor pushes up wages. Workers and social reformers begin to advocate for more leisure time. The manufacturing workweek is about 66 hours.
1860s – Manufacturing Workweek Declines
The manufacturing workweek continues to decline slightly, to about 60-65 hours. After the Civil War “Grand Eight Hours Leagues” form in order to promote the 8-hour day. Proponents argue that a shorter workweek will raise standards of living by raising consumption and reducing unemployment. However, as before, and despite (admittedly weak) government regulations, work hours remain high.
1870s – 10-Hour Laws
In 1874, Massachusetts passes the first enforceable 10-hour law. It applies only to female workers and comes into full effect in 1879. The workweek remains in the low 60’s.
1880–1900 – The 8-Hour Concept Emerges
Labor strikes nationally for an 8-hour work day. But violence—a bombing and police violence during rallies in 1886—dampens the 8-hour cause. Still, in 1892 Massachusetts reduces the maximum workweek for women to 58 hours.
1900–1920 – 8-Hour Day
The start of the 20th century sees work-hours reduced by legislative effort, especially for women and children, and in industries deemed hazardous (such as mining). In 1906, responding to demands of the typographical union, two major firms in the printing industry adopt the 8-hour workday. New laws are passed mandating that every contract with the U.S. government have an 8-hour day clause, establishing maximum hours for maritime workers, and an 8-hour day for railroad workers.
Arguments for reducing the workweek change emphasis. Initially, the point was to reduce working hours to create jobs and reduce unemployment, and to raise worker pay. But social scientists begin to argue that long hours are unhealthy, dangerous, and ultimately, counterproductive.
During the late teens, the labor shortages created by World War I reduce the unemployment rate and make it possible for workers to bargain aggressively for shorter work hours. The federal government supports these efforts.
1920s – 5-Day Workweek vs. “Gospel of Consumption”
In the 1920s the workweek falls to about 50 hours. In 1926, Ford Motor Company adopts the 5-day workweek. About 400,000 workers are on 5-day weeks.
Now economists and the business community begin to view shorter hours as a threat to growth. At the same time, the concept of leisure time begins to gain traction.
Progressives argue that, in addition to reducing the threat of unemployment, increased leisure enables workers to practice and value increased morality, spiritualism, individualism.
Businessmen claim that shortening work hours stifles economic growth by repressing both production and consumption. They are supporting the “gospel of consumption,” which promotes the idea that consumer demand for goods should be encouraged in order to create growth.
From this perspective, providing leisure time leads to shorter hours and less wage income, thus threatening consumption. Unions are confronted with the choice to either support increased income (via increased hours) or increased leisure.
Meanwhile, low unemployment and a demand for workers makes the argument for shorter hours and increased leisure increasingly irrelevant, to business managers as well as to workers, who are being urged to earn and consume.
1930s – Great Depression: Reducing the Workweek to Reduce Unemployment: The 30-hour Proposal
The Great Depression drastically alters the arguments about work-hours. Unemployment at 25% is a major concern. As a result, the shorter hours solution receives increasing attention and support.
Labor pushes for a 5-day week, and then a 30-hour week. The government under Hoover urges voluntary reduction of hours, saving 3 – 5 million jobs. Kellogg’s (maker of cereals) adopts the 6-hour day. Major businesses such as Sears Roebuck, General Motors and Standard Oil also shorten their workweek as an alternative to laying off employees. The idea of shorter hours, and a 30-hour workweek, gains momentum from industrialists, labor, and local and national politicians of both parties.
In 1933, the US Senate passes a bill for a 30-hour workweek. The House version is expected to pass without opposition. (These efforts together are referred to as the “Black-Connery” bill.) Government and labor agree that high unemployment is caused by oversupply of goods (the “gospel of consumption”).
This problem can be resolved by reducing work-hours, production, and thus oversupply. Arguments for the value of leisure, and the right of workers to leisure time, reinforce this cause. In addition, by 1933 the workweek has been shrinking slowly but steadily for a century. As machines take over production from human beings, why shouldn’t this trend continue?
But growing industry resistance to work-sharing dooms the bill. Opponents charge that it is “communist,” that it will interfere with competition, and that it will permanently set the workweek at 30 hours forever. In response to industry pressure, President Roosevelt abandons the 30-hour effort, adopting instead an economic recovery approach. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act limits the workweek to 44 hours, with provision for time-and-a-half for overtime work.
1940s – 40-Hour Workweek
In 1940 Congress amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to limit the workweek at 40 hours. WWII effectively brings the depression to a close. The war effort generates a massive demand for labor and draws women into the workforce in great numbers.
1950s – Workweek Decline Halts
Continued low unemployment effectively silences the shorter hours movement. Employee-related costs such as health insurance mean that employers would rather pay overtime to existing workers (thus lengthening their workweek) than hire new employees.
1960s to Present Workweek Decline Reverses
Increasing use of contract labor, and the expansion of the “gig economy” make employment figures difficult to track. In addition, individuals, especially in low-wage sectors, increasingly work more than one job.
A variety of studies show that in certain overtime-exempt positions (including professional and managerial workers), the workweek can routinely be as long as 50 or 60 hours. The practice of “downsizing,” (layoffs) in particular, increases the workweek for a company’s remaining employees.
Follow the continuing story of the workweek and its issues on this site.
Articles and studies on the ongoing evolution of the workweek
- Global Work-Life Challenges – http://www.ey.com/us/en/about-us/our-people-and-culture/ey-work-life-challenges-across-generations-global-study
- The 40-hour workweek is on its Way Out – http://www.businessinsider.com/working-more-than-40-hours-a-week-2015-5
- Nobody works 40-hour weeks anymore – http://fortune.com/2015/05/05/40-hour-work-weeks/
- Is it time for a shorter workweek? The Washington Post – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/05/13/is-it-time-for-a-shorter-workweek/
The information on this page was compiled from a number of sources. For a detailed examination of workweek history and its associated issues, refer to the excellent online document, “Hours of Work in U.S. History” by Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University (https://eh.net/encyclopedia/hours-of-work-in-u-s-history/).
If you’re interested in a deep examination of workweek evolution, we highly recommend the following books:
- Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Temple Press.
- The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor, Basic Books.