By Steven Monacelli
Nearly one hundred years ago, famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the time his grandchildren entered the workforce they would only work 15 hours a week thanks to technological advancements that increase productivity.
Although Keynes and his wife were never able to have children due to medical reasons, their hypothetical grandchildren would be working by now. And had they taken their grandfather’s economic prediction to heart, they would be sorely disappointed.
Whether it’s because they’re juggling multiple jobs or are exempt from being paid overtime, many Americans today work well over 40 hours a week and do not have two days off for every five days of work. This represents a roll back of hard-earned progress.
In the 1920s, the average American worker labored for at least 50 hours a week. Thirty years prior, that number was 60 hours, but decades of labor strikes and union agitation resulted in the imposition of 8-hour workday laws that brought the average down.
When the Great Depression hit, unemployment skyrocketed. Rapid industrialization had created an economy where there were too many products with too few people to buy them. This caused prices to plummet, setting off a cascade of financial defaults and market failures.
In response, the United States Senate passed a 30-hour workweek bill in 1933. By reducing hours, the government hoped to pressure employers to hire more employees. Simultaneously, it provided people with more leisure time. But opponents attacked this proposal as “communist” and eventually it was dropped in favor of alternative approaches.
In today’s work-obsessed world, a call for a 30 hour work week may sound radical, even impossible. But allow yourself some historical perspective. Labor strikes in the 1800s and early 1900s were considered so radical they were often met with violence, and many labor organizers who led campaigns for reduced work hours were killed by police or private security.
The issue was revisited in 1938 when Congress passed the Labor Standards Act which limited the workweek to 44 hours, with the provision that overtime is paid at an increased rate. In 1940, the workweek was reduced to 40 hours, but that was the last time that the government took any action to legally limit working hours.
Since the 1950s, average worker productivity has increased by nearly 500%. Meanwhile, average wages have barely budged as the concentration of wealth at the top has exploded. The gains of productivity have not been shared but instead gobbled up by members of the ownership and managerial classes, whose share of the income and wealth is greater now than it was during the height of the Gilded Age.
Over the same period, statistics regarding the average workweek have been mixed. These statistics have become increasingly difficult to track amid the expansion of contract labor, the “gig economy” and the reality that many people work more than one job. While some statistics suggest a steady decline in the average workweek, other surveys and studies show that people who work in overtime exempt positions or have multiple jobs regularly work more than 40 hours a week.
If Keynes’ had grandkids, they would likely have ended up working just as much if not more than him. Unless they’re within the top 1% of earners, they would likely be making less money relative to their overall productivity. And while they may have access to things that their grandfather couldn’t have predicted — the internet, smart phones, and self-driving cars — they wouldn’t have the sort of leisure time that real productivity gains might otherwise offer if the average workweek were further reduced.
The benefits of giving people more time to spend with their families, educate their kids, do home chores, run personal errands, pursue creative interests, enjoy leisure and relax are so immense that it’s difficult to quantify. Studies also show that a happier and healthier workforce is a more productive workforce, and that overworked employees are more likely to make mistakes. This all means that a reduction in the average work week would be unlikely to impact productivity, and may even increase it.
If you’re thinking this all sounds good to you, but you’re not sure how we might get there, consider the history of how we got the 8-hour work week, which was first established by federal law for railroad workers in 1916. By the time it became law, the 8-hour workday had already been widely installed in the printing trades after decades of aggressive labor organizing tactics like nationwide strikes forced business owners to acquiesce.
Historically, labor unions have been at the forefront of securing protections that end up improving the lives of every working American. It has almost exclusively been through the combination of aggressive labor organizing and historical pressures that massive labor reforms have been passed into law. It wasn’t until World War I that enough labor pressure existed to create the 8-hour workday, and it wasn’t until the Great Depression and World War II that the forty-hour work week came into existence.
Although union participation has dropped significantly since its peak of over 20% in 1983, we are currently living through a new wave of labor organizing and union formation — particularly in journalism, one of the print trades. The formation of the first union of Amazon warehouse workers — who regularly work 10-12 hour days — is also a positive sign. And the trend continues and picks up, the working class may have a chance to reclaim their time.
So it’s not too late for Keynes’ prediction to come true. Nor is there any good reason it shouldn’t. Our modern economy produces more than enough for everyone. We all should be working less, not more. Our generation has the remainder of our lifetimes to realize the dream. And hopefully, it will not require another world war for us to get there.