In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek in the future. Approaching nearly a century later, there has not been a significant decrease in working hours. In America, the standard workweek is 40 hours, which breaks down to working about five days a week for eight hours each day. This amount doesn’t count overtime or work taken home, but in our current era of modernization, it’s strange. The productivity of American workers has increased, and yet we have not seen an equal increase in hourly compensation. If we aren’t going to regulate wealth so it all can’t be held by business owners, it’s time to consider cutting the workweek by one day. In keeping with Maynard’s prediction, it’s time we shorten our current workweek.
This isn’t a crazy idea. As the United States industrialized, work hours per week fell. While estimates are hard to find for agriculture in the 1800s, the average workweek fell from about 70 to 60 hours for manufacturers, according to the Economic History Association. For the 20th century, data is easier to find for the manufacturing sector. From about 1900 to 1930, hours fell again to about 50 hours per week. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 made overtime pay after 40 hours mandatory, effectively lowering the average workweek to 40 hours. Since then, nothing major has changed. This has also led some employers to have people work just under 40 hours per week as to not pay them benefits required by law, so a new system is obviously needed.
Surprisingly, lowering workweek hours is not only accomplished through government intervention — it has happened in the private sector, too. While the government effectively mandated a five-day workweek in 1938, Henry Ford implemented the practice in his factories long before the government did. Ford, however, saw an economic benefit and personal financial gain to lowering work hours and acted on it, as his employees would be able to buy the products that they themselves produced.
Decreasing the workweek isn’t an idea just tied to the past. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand firm that manages trusts, wills and estates, held a two-month trial where employees worked four days a week without a pay cut in 2018. Employees reported a better work-life balance, and supervisors reported an increase in productivity. This past August, Microsoft concluded a monthlong four-day workweek experiment in Japan that showed a 39.9 percent gain in productivity, as measured by sales per employee. Japan, a country with some of the longest working hours, benefited from a reduction of the workweek. If Japan can benefit from a reduction in work hours, why can’t we?
Benefits are not limited to just productivity. Both studies encouraged an overall better work-life balance. In a four-day workweek, workers not only have more leisure time, but more time with family. This can be invaluable, especially to new parents who juggle work with raising children and maintaining a life outside of the office. By working only 32 hours a week, we lessen the burden that hardworking Americans face.
A four-day workweek doesn’t have to mean that workers get paid less, either. Just as Ford didn’t lower wages in his factories when he shorted the workweek, Microsoft didn’t lower their wages in Japan, where their workers were paid for five days of work in a four-day workweek. In both of those cases, firms managed to cut costs by closing one day. If workers have more money available to them and more time to spend it, then more can circulate through the economy, raising the gross domestic product. I am defining workers here as wage or salary laborers, or those who work for an employer who sets their hours. Outside of purely economic benefit, however, workers deserve more compensation for their labor. The majority of Americans deserve a break, and anyone telling you differently is ultimately saying that the working class should continue to be exploited.
Although few politicians seem to be talking about it, former Alaska senator and presidential candidate Mike Gravel has released policy proposals for making it a reality, such as mandated vacation time, increased federal holidays and paid leave. We’ve gone almost 80 years without a decrease in work. Not only is that strange historically, it is wrong morally.
Michael Levinstein is a senior double-majoring in political science and economics.