Evolution of the Workweek

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A typical American will work 90,000 hours during their lifetime. The week is usually divided into five workdays of eight hours each and a two-day weekend consisting of Saturday and Sunday. While this might be the norm today, it wasn’t always the case.

Origins of the Seven-Day Week

The concept of a seven-day week goes back to the Babylonians and the Jews. The Babylonians created a lunisolar calendar of 12 lunar months, each defined by a full lunar orbit. Many scholars believe that the seven-day week corresponded with key phases of the moon. The first day of the month was marked by the first visible crescent, the seventh day with a waxing half-moon, the fourteenth with a full moon and so on. The Babylonians celebrated each seventh day as a “holy day.” In Judaism, a seven-day week appears in the creation account of Genesis in which God worked six days to create the heavens and the earth, followed by a seventh day of rest.

The Agricultural Workweek

Before the invention of artificial light, work hours varied depending upon the sun and the seasons. Summer and harvest months tended to have more work, whereas winter months had less. In England, summer days lasted for 16 hours while winter days lasted for only eight. The workday, during the Middle Ages, consisted of alternating work and rest periods even during peak harvest times. Work was halted for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon nap and dinner. In some places, midmorning and midafternoon breaks were also observed.

Work hours were limited on account of the numerous holidays on the medieval calendar. Official church holidays included Christmas, Easter and Saints’ days. Weddings, funerals, and festivals also dotted the calendar. All in all, down time due to holidays probably accounted for one-third the year in England. In France, the ancien règime guaranteed 52 Sundays, 90 rest days, and 38 holidays. In Spain, holidays were estimated to fill a full five months during the year.

The Industrial Workweek

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in England came a tremendous change to the nature of work. A population boom combined with the fact that landowners were enclosing common village lands resulted in a large migration from the countryside to cities. At the same time, innovations in power and manufacturing techniques resulted in new factories that produced higher quality goods with huge time savings. Unfortunately for workers, there were few regulations on the books to limit the power of factory owners. Unlike work in the countryside, factory work lasted 10-16 hours per day, six days a week, with few breaks. Workers received no paid vacations and were not allowed to take holidays. To make matters worse, an 1832 report commissioned by the British House of Commons stated that workers were often

“abandoned from the moment that an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”

High unemployment meant an able-bodied worker was always ready to take the place of someone who had been injured.

In 1810, Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer and mill owner, advocated a ten-hour workday. By 1817, he set the standard at eight hours and coined the slogan, “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” Unfortunately, few factory owners heeded Owen’s call. It would take more than 100 years, collective bargaining and increased regulation to balance power between owners and workers. Ever so slowly pay increased and working hours were reduced.

The Weekend

The word “weekend” was first introduced in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1879. By this point in time, salaries had grown to the point where workers had more disposable income. Sunday was the recognized rest day but many festivals and sporting events would be held on Mondays since they were prohibited on the Sabbath. More and more workers would take the day off on Monday, a practice that grew to be so common that it became known as, “keeping Saint Monday.” By the end of the century, factories would close for a half-day on Saturdays to appease workers and ensure that they would show up for work on the remaining workdays.

The 40-Hour Workweek

In the United States, Henry Ford upset his competitors when he doubled pay to $5 a day and shortened shifts from nine to eight hours per day in 1915. The move actually increased productivity and doubled profit margin. In 1916, the Adamson Act established an eight-hour day, with additional pay for overtime, for railroad workers. Under the New Deal, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a 40-hour workweek, a national minimum wage and guaranteed time-and-a-half for overtime.

The Origins of Retirement

For most of history, workers labored their whole lives. This idea was upended in 1889 when Otto Van Bismark established an old-age social insurance program in Prussia (Germany). Under Bismark’s influence, Germany’s emperor, William the First, wrote “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.” The program set the retirement age at 70, but it was later reduced to 65 in 1916. In 1935, the US congress passed the Social Security Act, which set the retirement age at 65. At the time, the average life expectancy was 62 years old.

Life after Retirement

“Happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy (i.e. work) that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.” – Aristotle

The life expectancy in the United States has increased to 78 at the same time that the average retirement age has fallen to 62. What do we do with all that extra time? Del Webb’s famous Sun City retirement community advocated “active living” filled with golf, games, dancing, socials, etc. Interestingly, a May 2013 study by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs has found that retirement increased the chances of depression by 40% and of having at least one diagnosed physical ailment by 60% (after controlling for normal age-related conditions). Unlike Aristotle, I would not attribute happiness to leisure, but rather to purpose. Work is an opportunity to accomplish something meaningful. All the more when our company has clearly defined the objective of our work and our own personal goals and values align with that overarching purpose. Many retirees lose a sense of purpose when they stop working.

Personally, I am really excited to be 65. As a life long learner, I can only imagine all the wisdom I will have amassed after so many years on this Earth. I hope to leverage that knowledge in meaningful projects, some for-profit some not-for-profit. Work that is filled with purpose brings life whereas excessive leisure is toxic.

Workweek Innovation Continues

For those of us who are still working, the workweek is continuing its evolution with the introduction of the telecommuting, flexible work programs, Results Only Work Environments (ROWE) and the four-day workweek. The best employers, like Henry Ford and Robert Owen before them, will experiment with new ways to increase productivity and flexibility through workweek innovations.

Photo Credit: János Balázs

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