For decades now, the American standard work week has been 40 hours, 9 am to 5 pm, holidays and weekends off (if you’re lucky) — but is that changing?
As technology continues to reshape the way we all think, work, and socialize, the work week appears to be getting a major overhaul. There are some incredible benefits for workers, but there’s some resistance to the mentality that working more hours isn’t necessarily more productive.
Do more hours really equal more productivity? Can we really get everything done in less than 40 hours a week?
We take a look at the American work week from over 100 years ago, right up to today, and get a sense of what the future might hold for American employees and business owners.
The Beginning of the 40-Hour Workweek
For a long time, working hours weren’t even really measured or recorded on a large scale. Then, in 1890, the American government began collecting data and determined that Americans in the manufacturing industry were working on average 100 hours per week.
One. Hundred. Hours.
Not much was done with that information for a few decades, until labor unions finally began to put their collective feet down and say ENOUGH. They pushed companies and government to limit how much they could ask their employees to work, and eventually, they made it happen.
There were massive, unpleasant strikes as companies pushed back on what, at the time, seemed like ridiculous and unreasonable demands, the most notorious of which was the May Day protest of 1886, which resulted in the Haymarket Massacre.
Eventually, big players started to take notice of the workers’ demands. Ford Motors was actually one of the first companies to institute a five-day, 40-hour workweek, and back then, it was a pretty big deal.
In 1916, the 40-hour workweek became standard practice, but only for railroad employees. It wasn’t until 1940 that the workweek was finally limited to 40 hours by the modified Fair Labor Standards Act.
The Work Hard, Never Play Hard Mentality
Americans are titans of industry, trailblazers of business and enterprise that pride themselves not on how much time they spend on vacation, but how many hours they work. In this culture, time off isn’t seen as something to be proud of, but something kind of embarrassing and self-indulgent, like getting a double scoop ice cream cone or wearing a fur coat.
In fact, a study recently showed that of Americans that receive paid vacation time from their employers, an astounding 31% won’t use it all each year. Additionally, Americans work on average longer hours than every other country in the world, except for Mexico.
We got our start in this country by the sweat of our brow and pure persistence, but this antiquated idea that the more hours we work, the more deserving we are of the things we have, as it turns out, is based largely on pride, and not actual productivity.
More Hours Does Not Equal More Productivity
An interesting look at productivity versus hours clocked can be had when you take a closer look at the German workweek. In this culture, they don’t just limit themselves to 40 hours per week, but actually take a federally mandated six weeks of vacation per year.
Most of us can barely get our heads around two weeks, but six? Surely that’s only for the fancypants executive, right?
Not so. For every full-time employee in Germany, it’s standard practice, and as it turns out, Germans might actually be more productive than Americans. Though they work fewer hours in a year than the average American, Germans appear to actually get a lot more done in a day.
Speculation indicates this might be because work is much less of a social affair Germany. In America, water cooler gossip is legendary, breakroom birthday cakes weekly, and meetings long and numerous, and in Germany, it’s all about buckling down and getting it done, so you can go home to your family at the end of the day.
By all indications, it appears that Americans get a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment out of just clocking the hours, when in reality, we’re actually producing less work.
Companies That Are Changing the Game
As technology rapidly changes the way the world works, Americans are finally starting to catch a break. Thought leaders like Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, are breaking the mold and saying no to endless workweeks and no personal time.
As they proudly and profoundly declare in the description of their podcast “Workaholics Aren’t Heroes”, Basecamp lays it out:
“Being tired isn’t a badge of honor.”
Basecamp is a company that operates around the standard of quality of time input, not the amount, and enforces a strict 32-hour workweek limit on its employees during the summer, and 40 hours for the rest of the year. Meetings are limited to conserve time and productivity, and instant communication channels are the exception, not the norm, to avoid distracting and derailing productivity.
In an interview with CNBC, Fried told reporters, “If you’re overworked and tired you make mistakes, and mistakes are costly. If [companies] want people to be sharp and make fewer mistakes you can’t work them 60-70 hours a week.”
Sure, that overtime pay is sweet when you really need it, but we like Basecamp’s style, and we like even more that this is being recognized as an approach ideal for both mental health and productivity.
A New Approach
On the heels of the hustle or die tryin’ movement is a growing body of businesses and people who are learning to set limits, say no, and stick to what matters most, protecting personal time and space from work and the debilitating effects of an endless grind.
Start-ups are finally starting to embrace that sure, it takes dedication to be successful, but that growth will never be sustainable or healthy on the backs of exhausted, overworked employees.
Bestselling books like The 4-Hour Workweek are changing the way people think about what’s truly possible in terms of supporting their families and balancing their time commitments, and the effects are finally starting to take hold as companies adjust their expectations.
What about you? Do you feel long hours are necessary for your job, or have you condensed your work week to allow more room for your personal life? Tell us in the comments below!