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How the 40-hour work week became the norm

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The pandemic has people and businesses reevaluating how they work and how much they work. Kickstarter, Shopify, Shake Shack - these are all companies exploring a reduced workweek - like, say, from five days a week to four. But why is 40 hours the norm anyway? Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi from our Planet Money podcast team brings us this quick history of the workweek.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt studies how work and leisure have changed over the centuries.

Is it some sort of, like, a natural law that we should all work 40 hours a week?

BENJAMIN HUNNICUTT: (Laughter) No. Work itself is this brand new invention.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The human history of work can be summed up very roughly, Hunnicutt says, in three big chapters, from hunting and gathering through early farming, when humans worked basically just as much as they needed to survive. Anthropologists estimate that was way less than 40 hours. Then skip to the Industrial Revolution. Factories spring up with machines whirring from dawn until dusk, often six days a week. 70 or more working hours would have been common, at least in the early 1800s in the U.S. We can call this second chapter peak work. And the response, from workers, anyway, was the labor movement - protests, strikes, lobbying employers and the government for shorter workdays, among many other demands.

HUNNICUTT: The first demand of organized labor was 10 hours - the 10-hour movement. And they made a concerted effort and were successful, to a certain extent, to obtain the 10-hour day.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: By the late 19th century, Hunnicutt says, the workweek begins to shrink to something closer to 60 hours a week for more and more people. And it keeps shrinking for a while, just in time for the rise of so-called scientific management - when businesses begin studying how to increase worker productivity. And they start to find a downside to even the 10-hour day.

HUNNICUTT: People who were working 10 hours - surprise, surprise - got tired. After eight hours, the worker is not as productive, especially on, you know, a high-speed assembly line.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In the 1920s, Henry Ford famously adopts an eight-hour workday, though, in part, that is so he can run his factories 24 hours a day. But it took the Great Depression to make 40 hours the norm. Government saw a shorter workweek as a way to fight the massive unemployment crisis by spreading the remaining labor out over more people. That led to a series of laws that eventually enshrined 40 hours as America's workweek in 1940. And it seemed like that trend would keep going. The most respected economist of the era, John Maynard Keynes, famously predicted that improving technology and increasing efficiency would deliver a 15-hour workweek by 2030.

DAN HAMERMESH: Now, the man's long since dead. I don't want to make fun of the dead people. But unless something happens in nine years or so, he was really wrong.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Dan Hamermesh is a labor economist at Barnard College. He says some wealthy countries have shortened their total work hours per year, but mainly through things like government-mandated leave time and more vacation. America hasn't really done that. So this new crop of companies experimenting with shorter weeks is kind of a blip, he says. It's largely in white-collar work, and what makes sense there won't necessarily work for a huge swath of workers in industries like manufacturing, food service and health care. And he says that makes it unlikely to spread organically across the broader economy.

HAMERMESH: If I, in my company, do it and you don't in your company, I'll feel a disadvantage. So I need somebody external to pull us out of this trap, i.e. a government.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's going to take big government action, Hamermesh says, for 32 hours to really become the new 40.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.