Have you ever wondered why we work an eight hour day? Where did that concept come from? In our agrarian days people would work sun-up to sun-down working the fields. As civilization increased and developed jobs developed that were not controlled by the need to be in the fields and work settled into a pace that was sufficient to make a living. Some toiled longer some toiled less. Often it depended on the nature of what they were doing, the season of the year, the length of the day and their own circadian rhythm. Given that why do we work the way we do?
The way we work today is a relatively modern phenomenon in the history of man. With the industrial revolution which began in the late 18th century (1760 or so) the nature of work radically changed. People now went to work in factories and lived according to the schedule that was set by the owners of the business. Twelve and fourteen hour days were not uncommon, including children working those hours as well. It was not an easy life. Despite the view of the evil business owner (still held today by many) not everyone abided by these rules. Many social reformers, such as Charles Dickens, tried to change the way work was done. One of the early reformers was also a business owner. Robert Owen worked early to try to reduce the work day to eight hours, with the slogan “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.” Of course he worked his employees 10 hours per day, but that was better than 14 hours.
In the United States
The 8 hour work week in the US did not really gain traction until the industrial genius Henry Ford adapted it. Ford adopted the 8 hour work day and the 40 hour work week. Interestingly it was not for reasons that necessarily were for the benefit of the employees. Ford wanted his employees to be able to spend some leisure time so they could discover they needed to buy a car. It worked and everyone gained. People got more time, they did not lose wages per Ford’s instructions, and the Ford Motor Co. sold more cars and made more money.
Fair Labor Standards Act
By the time the depression hit the U.S. people were very familiar with the 8 hour work day and the 40 hour work week concept. Of course many businesses did not institute it. When the Roosevelt administration New Deal came into existence they were trying to solve the woes of 25% unemployment. One of the ways to improve unemployment is to try to generate more employment. The way they did this was to pass a law that defined the workweek as 40 hours and saying any business that employed someone more than 40 hours would have to pay them 1.5 times their hourly wage for those hours worked that exceeded 40. Since the only cost at that time of having an employee was the wage you paid them (since we had no benefit programs) it was cheaper to hire more people to do the work in order to avoid paying someone “overtime.”
The Bureau of Labor Standards reports that most of us spend 8.8 hours working today. But there are moves to change the nature of how we work. Flex-time considerations have changed the nature of the work day. Movements such as ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) have changed the emphasis from time spent working to the results being achieved regardless of the hours worked. There is even a popular book with the title of The Four Hour Workweek. The increasing use of contingent workers is also changing the number of hours that are worked by large number of people.
Work is more than just the hours we put in. Study after study has shown that work is necessary for a healthy self-image. Eight hours are not necessary from a physical standpoint. It divides a twenty four day into nice equal segments which turned out to be convenient for companies doing shift work.
But there is just no real reason for the eight hour day other than following established convention. Thanks Henry! You could have tried four hour days!