The amount of time people work is not, of course, written in stone (or, for that matter, in law). And, in the United States, employees work much more than in most other rich countries. So, why not reduce it?
In the nineteenth century, the demand of the U.S. labor movement was 8 hours—8 hours work, 8 hours rest, and 8 hours recreation. The idea, when workers were routinely forced to have the freedom to work for 10, 12, 14 hours at a time, was to establish a maximum length of the workday.
The campaign didn’t work (the 8-hour day was never legislated in the United States) but the rising factory system, in which production could be organized around the clock, did bring with it three shifts of 8 hours each. And that eventually became the standard for factories and then offices—except that American workers routinely work more than 40 hours a week and often aren’t paid for overtime.
It makes sense, of course, to reduce the length of the workday and, as I wrote back in September, Sweden has begun doing exactly that—with a 6-hour day. According to the latest report, the results have been positive: less work, more time for rest and recreation, and, as it turns out, higher productivity.
The result is not all that surprising. According to the Economist, there’s a negative relationship between hours worked and productivity: countries with fewer hours worked per year tend to have higher productivity. The United States, as we know, is at the other end: more hours worked and lower productivity.
So, the number of hours worked (whether daily, weekly, or annually) is not anything given or natural. And there are certainly benefits—for individual workers and society as a whole—in decreasing the length of the workday.
Who, then, is opposed to changing the length of the workday? The same ones who opposed the nineteenth-century movement to establish an 8-hour day.
Their fear, of course, is that, once we denaturalize the length of the workday, we might also be able to question and move beyond other givens—like the idea that most people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a tiny group of employers, who profit from the labor of others.
Changing that arrangement would allow workers themselves to decide how to achieve a better balance of work, rest, and recreation.