Technology is making the 40-hour workweek an outmoded tradition.
Historically, the workweek concept was based on the cycle of working from sunup to sundown, stopping either because the necessary work got done or it got too dark to see. The invention of gaslights in the late 19th century, followed by electric lights, made sunset an outmoded stopping point. During the Industrial Revolution, a typical workweek in a factory could last 70 hours.
In 1926, industrialist Henry Ford was the first to establish an eight-hour workday at his factories and to limit the week to five days when most employers demanded six. “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege,” Ford said.
He believed workers who had gotten some rest put cars together better than exhausted, burnt-out ones, and he could, therefore, get the equivalent of six days’ work out of them while only requiring five. Ford ran his factories 24/7 with rotating shifts. Other industrialists didn’t follow initially, but during the Great Depression, they were pressured to adopt similar practices.
Government policies also altered work hours. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration pushed for it because it would require companies to hire more people and alleviate the Great Depression’s high unemployment. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, requiring employers to pay overtime if workers put in more than 44 hours a week. Two years later, that was amended to 40 hours a week. The FLSA required recording work hours to determine if an employee was due overtime, so employers scheduled 40-hour weeks to ensure compliance. Thus, the 40-hour week became standard.
When necessary, employers could get more labor from their workers by paying them a premium, i.e., overtime. Workers could even request overtime when they needed more money.
However many hours were worked, it was assumed that the work would always be done at the employer’s location. It wasn’t practical in most cases to do the work anywhere else. A new technology changed that, too.
The 2000s saw the advent of telecommuting, using the internet and or new cell phone technology to work outside of the employer’s location. Employers were wary of it. Most instinctively did not like being unable to directly monitor employees. Like many traditions, the 40-hour workweek lingered because that was how it had always been done.
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