The number of hours worked and the gig economy?

The numbers of hours worked in the past have been much longer than today.
The numbers of hours worked in the past have been much longer than today.

This blog post is a Monday Musing. I was reading a post about the gig economy and how more and more people are employed by it. From that I thought about writing a post on the fact that I feel we have always had a gig economy, but as I investigated more I got into a history of the number of hours worked in the US.

Some facts

Many of us have the idea that the 8-hour work day has always been in existence. We moan that days should be shorter to allow people more leisure time. Well that idea has been floated before, a long time ago, and was rejected, not only by employers, but also by workers and unions representing them. Back in the days when most people were self-employed, the “gig” economy before we invented the word people worked 12 hour days. Eventually as people started working for others the work day started shortening. In the 1820’s we had a shorter hour movement to shorten the workday to 10 hours. New Hampshire and Pennsylvania passed laws restricting the length of the workday to 10 hours. In 1847 an executive order was issued from President Martin Van Buren restricting the work of Federal employees who performed manual labor to a 10 hour day.
As time went on more and more legislation was passed that restricted the length of the day, though the courts said that a contract could specify whatever length was acceptable to the parties in the contract. Federal legislation, in particular the Fair Labor Standards Act, defined the 40 hour workweek, though it did not prohibit people from working more. Employers just had to pay more for that work.
During the Depression there was attempted legislation to make the official workweek 30 hours. This did not meet wide acceptance either by employers or by the 75% of workers who were employed. There have also been attempts to shorten the workday to just 6 hours, but workers rejected this saying they did not want to be at home and they would prefer to have to money from working longer hours, especially if they had the opportunity to work overtime.


Today we are still seeing a decrease in the hours worked. In Europe the number of hours workers work during the week has gone done considerably. We have just had a change in the FLSA that may have the effect of reducing the length of workweeks because of the additional overtime that has to be paid. Concurrently we are seeing a rise in the gig economy. Could these be connected? Are we set to work a certain number of hours a week, and if our employer doesn’t provide us with those hours do we go and get them from someone else? Will we see an increase in the number of gig workers as the FLSA changes take effect?

The future

As we move into the future and more and more robots take over work will be see legislation that will require employers to employee people at least a minimum number of hours per week? There have been calls for a national plan to pay workers who have been displaced. One way of doing that is to require employers to keep people employed despite having technology that makes them redundant.
As you can see my mind just ran wild writing this. Here is one final parting question for you to consider. Will we increase the quality of someone’s life by requiring them to work less? Should we mandate a MAXIMUM number of hours that someone should work?
The paper I read on the history of work hours in the United States was Hours of Work in U.S. History by Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University. If you found this interesting I would suggest you take a look at it. I did not do justice to it at all. Of course I am an HR geek and a history buff so it just may be me.
After writing this post I came across the post Are We Destined To Work More Than 40 Hours A Week? by Jacob Morgana favorite futurist author. He has an interesting perspective that is not too far off base from mine. If you stayed this far in my post I encourage you to read Jacob’s post.

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