Why Are We Still Working 40+ Hours a Week? 🕰️

A proposal for modern knowledge workers

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It’s Thursday at 9 PM. I’m staring into my laptop while its glow illuminates my face. There’s a soft, red blanket across my lap. Behind me, a dimly lit lamp casts a shadow on the wall in my peripheral. The AirPods in my ears play Lofi beats, attempting to serenade my soul.

The rest of my family is getting ready for bed. Me? I glance at the bottom left of the screen and see that I’m on slide 17 of 37. Awesome.

I’m working on a customer presentation that’s due tomorrow because it’s one of those weeks where everything is urgent and important. 

I lean back into my Herman Miller and sink further.

“Fuck. How did I get here?”

Better question — how did so many of us get here? 

Unpaid overtime is the norm for salary-based knowledge workers these days (at least in the private sector). For some reason, with all of this fancy, new technology, companies don’t think we’re doing enough.

If you ask me, something’s got to change.

Let’s take a brief stroll through human history to show you why.

For the majority of humankind, “work” consisted of small-ish tribes who hunted and gathered, then eventually farmed, for livelihood. There were no mandatory or minimum hours. Work was whatever you needed to survive. You either worked until you got enough food…or you died.

In the mid-1700s, the Industrial Revolution came along and things started to change. Factories sprung up. Machines became all the rage. Life was great and the new technology meant dramatically increased productivity. The only problem was that humans were still needed to operate the machines, and productivity was directly correlated to hours worked.

The technology came at a price — more human time.

Businesses squeezed every ounce that they could out of their workers. Many people were upset at the low wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Unfortunately, a greater population of workers, new to the country, were more than willing to do the work that others complained about.

This put businesses in a position that they could leverage even further. But eventually, things got so bad that everyone got pissed. Strikes, protests, you name it. Throughout the 1800s, the labor movement took off and evolved into an organization similar to what we have today. 

The first major reform of organized labor was the (mostly) successful campaign to reduce the workday to 10 hours. By the end of the 1800s, most people were working something like 60 hours per week, which was a significant improvement compared to the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The 40-hour workweek, though, didn’t become the norm until more than 40 years later. 

In 1920, Henry Ford adopted the 8-hour workday, partly so that he could run three shifts to keep his factories running 24 hours a day, but also to keep his workers happy and to optimize their productivity. Turns out workers got tired and less effective after 8 straight hours of work. Shocking.

Then, the Great Depression happened. The government wanted to combat the unemployment crisis by capping the workweek for individual workers at, you guessed it, 40 hours. This allowed other workers to fill in for the people who were no longer working 60+ hour workweeks.

That ultimately led to several laws that supplanted the 40-hour workweek as the American standard in 1940. And that’s the system we’ve been following ever since. 

John Maynard Keynes, a highly respected economist at the time, predicted that by 2030 we would be working 15-hour workweeks.

Unless something monumental happens in the next 6 years, boy was he fucking wrong.

We’ve made incredible strides in technology and how we work, and yet the system largely remains the same. I’m not necessarily saying the system is broken, but the people in it are. We are tired and limping by.

It’s been more than 80 years since a nationwide reform to working hours has been implemented. Let’s look at a few things that have changed since then:

  • The personal computer was invented, giving every knowledge worker a substantial productivity boost

  • The Internet was born

  • Letters became emails

  • Smartphones have become a standard issue tool for everyone

  • Social media became a thing

  • Instant messaging

  • Microsoft Excel

  • Software in general

  • Machine automation 

  • More efficient hand tools

  • 3D printing

  • The ability to create specialized tools on demand, tailored per task

  • Video conferencing— first Polycom / ShowStation, then programs like Skype and Webex, and more recently, Zoom and Microsoft Teams

  • Lastly, Artificial Intelligence (AI)

That’s nowhere near an all-encompassing list. For sure I’m missing a buttload of other significant innovations. But I think you can see where I’m going with this.

How the hell are we still working the same number of hours per week as our grandparents and great-grandparents?

I’d guess the average worker is at least 10x more productive than their ancestors. A computer with the Internet, email, and Microsoft Excel alone blows the lid off the productivity bottle.

I can send hundreds of emails in the time that one physical letter would have been delivered a few states over. Not only that, but my recipient can respond instantaneously, allowing me to continue working without having to wait for critical information.

Yet how are companies evolving with this new technology and increased productivity? By using it to push growth and profits even faster.

Our massive increase in productivity has become an expectation (and an exploitation), not a luxury. Instead of giving workers more breaks to relax and de-stress from the increased activity, we are being demanded of more. 

It’s not hard to imagine why society is more stressed and anxious than ever. We’re overloaded with inputs, not just from work, but from the news, social media, and being in constant communication with everyone. The human brain can’t handle it, at least not without a major hardware upgrade or sufficient time to reset and recharge.

I hate the “drinking from a firehouse” analogy, but damn if it’s not the perfect way to describe life in the 21st century.

Don’t get me wrong. The technology is great. And some days I honestly feel like a superhero with how much I can produce. I’m just saying it comes at a price.

The least society could do for us is recognize the problem and act on it. Give us the proper compensation for the insane amount of work we’re able to produce in significantly less time. 

I’ve got a few ideas I’d like to see our nation's leadership consider. I know some of these have already been adopted by other countries, and I’m sure others have at least been considered (I hope). 

Idea #1: Ditching the forty-hour workweek for a 32-hour workweek. The obvious choice. Certainly one of the easiest without much need for major financial considerations. At least not for the average knowledge worker. Looks like someone in Congress is trying to make things happen, considering the bill for it was introduced in March 2023. We can hope.

Idea #2: Mandated time off every few months. For example, work for 3 months, then take a month off. Repeat forever until retirement. Not entirely sure how the pay situation works here, but I’d bet someone could figure it out.

Idea #3: Mandated time off on a longer time horizon. Instead of 3 months on, 1 month off, think 2 years of work followed by 6 months of vacation. Sort of like a mini-retirement that Tim Ferriss recommends in The Four-Hour Workweek. I like this idea because I can slug through 2 years of work if it means I get a full 6 months off. A light at the end of the tunnel does wonders for me. Hell, I’d be happy with a 3-month summer vacation again, something I’ve longed for since graduating from high school.

For sure, many adaptions can be made from these few ideas. I don’t care much which gets implemented, I just pray they do something. Allow us workers to take the extra time off to recharge and enjoy being a human for a while.

And dear God don’t punish us if we choose to take some time off before switching jobs. A gap in a resume says nothing about a person’s character.

I’ll wrap this article (that’s turned into more like a rant) up by saying there’s really not a better time than now to implement the first major labor hours reform in 80+ years. The benefits of AI alone warrant a change, never mind the many other monumental innovations.

I think people 50 years from now are going to look back on us with pity and say:

“Wow, those poor souls. They worked their asses off 5 days, 40+ hours per week, with just 2 days to rest before doing it all over again…for 45 years?? Imagine having to live like that.”

Just like we do with people who didn’t have the internet 50 years ago.

I’m 100% confident that there’s a better system out there. Somehow, we just need to win the battle against the people in power who benefit immensely from the current system.

Someone should tell them that they’re not likely to expect less profit. Instead, I’d assume the opposite. Workers will be able to produce the same, if not more during the reduced hours they work. People will be happier. Retention will improve. Fewer safety accidents. Maybe even less violence since we’ll all be marginally less stressed the fuck out.

There’s got to be something better than this. Let’s plz make it happen.