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Are 20-hour workweeks on their way?
Or are we sticking with 40?
Here’s an interesting chart: It shows that we went from working close to 70-hour weeks in 1870 to working less than 40-hour weeks in 2000.
My question is: Will that trend continue? Are 20-hour work weeks on their way? And if so, what would that even look like in practice?
Interestingly, the history of work is relatively short. Before 1870, we might sum it all up as various forms of feudalism—people working the land for the benefit of the landowners. Then industrialization happened and everyone needed factory workers. Factory owners wanted to keep the machines running day and night, for cheap labor, and that’s how the 70-hour work week happened.
Enter the labor movement.
Workers wanted a 10-hour workday and they got it—by 1900 the workweek was down to 60 hours per week. That’s when factory owners realized that employees started getting tired after eight hours of work—keeping them on the clock longer meant flagging efficiencies. Anyway, Henry Ford wanted to keep his factories running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so dividing the day into three eight-hour shifts just made sense. He was the first to implement a five-day, 40-hour workweek.
As Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, points out, Ford was even so progressive as to declare: “It’s high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” The cereal company Kellogg followed suit, expounding that “the unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight.”
Then all of that “work less” sentiment coincided with the Great Depression. When people were suddenly out of work altogether, the government cut the workweek down to 40 hours to spread the jobs around. There was no going back after that—the five-day work week became enshrined in US legislation in 1938. At the time, the famed economist John Maynard Keynes was optimistic enough to proclaim we would work a 15-hour workweek by the year 2030.
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It’s interesting to note what happened next: nothing. We briefly worked more during World War II, then we kept the 40-hour work week ever since.
Even after a massive population boom followed by women entering the workforce en masse—couples worked a combined total of 5-6 days a week in the 1950s, 7-8 days today—we just kept having enough work for us all to do. Which is kind of strange when you consider we became so much richer as a result. According to the 2020 census, the average household income went from $66,120 in 1980 (in today’s dollars) to $102,316 in 2021. We could afford to work less, couldn’t we?
As it turns out, that’s the reason we don’t. According to Bregman, all that income gave rise to a massive uptake in consumerism that started around 1980. “Economic growth can yield either more leisure or more consumption. From 1950 until 1980, we got both, but since then, it is mostly consumption that has increased. Even where real incomes have stayed the same and inequality has exploded, the consumption craze has continued, but on credit.”
When we started making more money, we started spending more money, and that created all kinds of new jobs designed to cater to our new consumerist tastes. We could work a 20-hour week and go for a run outside, instead we work a 40-hour week and pay for a Peloton subscription. We could work a 20-hour week and cook our own meals, instead we work a 40-hour week and get takeout. We could work a 20-hour week and pick our kids up for school, instead we work a 40-hour week and pay a nanny or after-school care to do it.
Our consumerist habits only mean we need to work more, or at least we’re not enticed to work less. As Bregman says: “More leisure is a wonderful ideal, but it’s simply too expensive. If we were all to work less, our standard of living would collapse.”
Would any of us willingly forgo money, even for the extra time it might afford us? Imagine a theoretical world in which you earn $75,000/year (around $36/hour). Now imagine your boss wants to give you a raise at $100,000/year (around $48/hour). At your new hourly rate, you could theoretically work a day less each week and keep the old annual salary. After all, you were making $75,000 before and were doing just fine, wouldn’t a little extra leisure time be nice? Or would you prefer to keep working 40 hours a week? After all, you’ve been working that much before, wouldn’t an extra $25,000 be nice?
Trading more money for more time can be a difficult (hedonic) treadmill to get off, even for those who attempt it. Kristin Cummings and her husband intentionally left their full-time jobs so they could become contractors and work less. The plan was for each of them to work 30 hours a week so they could travel the country, stay in different Airbnb’s every month, and be able to raise their four-year-old son together. It worked, for a while. Cummings became a fractional COO, helping various organizations with their operations on a freelance basis, then she started taking on more work.
“I kept getting calls from people who I respected, so I thought ‘I'm going to take on all this work,’ all because of my ambition and wanting to make more money,” she told me. When her family moved to New York City for a month, they thought they would use the extra money to enjoy the city. Instead, she found herself burnt out from all the extra work. “Now we're so tired we don't want to, so what does it matter?” she says.
Working so much came with its own problems. “I was spending a bunch of money taking care of myself. I got tendinitis and I had to go in once a week for appointments. I was getting migraines again so I had to go back to the chiropractor. I was justifying massages because I was stressed—I mean, I enjoy a massage, but I was going all the time. I literally think the money that I took on making, I'm just spending now taking care of all these problems.”
We could make the argument that Cummings was benefitting the economy here. As she made more money she spent more money on restaurants in New York City, chiropractors, and masseuses, and that fueled more jobs. But at what cost? If she worked less she wouldn’t need so many services, and she wouldn’t need as much money. Maybe the businesses she is supporting might be in the same boat.
This is where David Graeber believed the problem was more fundamental than an increase in consumerism, it is an increase in “bullshit jobs.” The term is taken from his book of the same name, in which he surmises that a growing number of our jobs have no contribution to society and yet make far more money. As jobs in agriculture and industry declined, jobs in services were on the rise.
I came to similar results in my previous essay, detailing how, as automation effectively eliminated the jobs essential to our survival—farming, etc.—we subsequently created new jobs in their place, less essential ones. My essay was high hat enough to imagine that, as automation does the same again, we might exchange the time we now spend on necessary jobs for more altruistic pursuits—eventually we might all become artists, I surmised.
But if that is my hope for the future, it is not what we did in the past. Instead, as we eliminated essential jobs, we replaced them with more frivolous ones. “Whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations,” Graeber says, and that is to say nothing of “the whole host of ancillary industries (dog washers, all night pizza delivery men) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.”
In other words, we created jobs to support jobs. Graeber’s book started out as an essay that went viral, one response came from a corporate tax litigator who resonated with the piece. “Thanks to technology, we are probably as productive in two days as we previously were in five,” he said. “But thanks to greed and some busy-bee syndrome of productivity, we are still asked to slave away for the profit of others ahead of our own nonremunerated ambitions.”
“What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians,” Graeber concludes, “but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?”
There are still those who will intentionally step off the treadmill—Cummings among them. And there are many more who would willfully follow in her footsteps. The artist Simone Bodmer-Turner, for one, once owned a design studio for a living and was a ceramicist on the side. Now she splits things more evenly. “I still have the design practice, but I have scaled that back, so it’s less business and more art,” she told Kinfolk.
If there is a hypothetical reshuffling of society that would see consumerism significantly reduced, bullshit jobs automated or eliminated away, and individuals able to work 20-hour weeks while spending the bulk of their work on creative pursuits, neither Bregman nor Graeber provide a blueprint. For that, we must turn to the Fords and Kelloggs of our time—those companies and individuals that are already trialing the less than 40-hour workweek, and are reimagining the workforce to their ways.
But that’s the subject of my next essay.
Thank you so much for reading,
I’m a big reader. In fact, I read about 200,000 words for every 2,000 I write and I like to keep track of all of it. That’s why, when it makes sense, I’ll share my complete reading list for deeper reading on the subject. Here’s what I’ve been studying for my work and leisure series:
A study of automation:
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing The Future, plus this six-part conversation about the future of work and leisure in response to the book:
Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek
A study of shorter workweeks: