The Curiosity of the Chronic Arguments over the Proper Length of a Work Day

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2014


One of the interesting insights I have gained from my history class this year is how long workers, business owners, managers, and interested third parties have been arguing over what is the proper length for a work day. The unions and social justice types have been arguing for over a hundred years that the hours in the standard work day should be reduced. An example: Terence V. Powderly, president of the Knights of Labor was arguing for shorter work days back in 1887, and he was quoting Ben Franklin from a hundred years earlier saying, "if the workers of the world would labor but four hours each day, they could produce enough in that length of time to supply the wants of mankind." (Note: I don't know if Ben really said such a thing. I have my doubts. This is an example of twisting quotes to serve the current editorial need, a practice quite alive and well on Facebook today.)

The arguing hasn't stopped to this day, and the theme hasn't changed, "With all the productivity we now have, why aren't workers working [some shorter amount of time] instead of the long hours they are now forced to endure?"

Given how chronic this argument is, there must be thinking blind-spots and instinctive thinking sustaining it.

Why Reduce the Hours?

Why reduce the hours? For the union and social justice types, the compelling reason is to reduce unemployment. If one worker works less hours and output is to remain constant, then another worker can be hired to take up those lost hours.

For the economists and futurists, the compelling reason is we have so much material prosperity now, why not use part of it to reduce working hours and let workers enjoy doing other fulfilling activities, such as more recreation, education, and family time.

Both of these sound good and logical, but for some reason the concept doesn't sound as good and logical to either management or workers who currently have the jobs -- both seem to like it when a worker works long hours.

Management Objections

Managers have a problem with reduced work hours because it means more workers get involved in completing a task. This adds complexity and uncertainty in many ways.

o There is the additional accounting and training complexity of hiring and paying more workers.

o There is the complexity of how to do a task. As Frederick Taylor vividly pointed out in the 1900's, there are many ways to accomplish an even simple tasks such as shoveling and the choice affects productivity. If one worker is doing the job one way and other a different way, are the results going to be compatible?

o And there is the added complexity to quality control -- if something isn't done right, which worker is responsible? How does the manager, and the workers, find out?

With increasing automation many of the above problems are diminished. If machines are doing the actual manipulating, and computers are doing the actual accounting, then it becomes easier to accommodate many different people working on a task. This is why shift work became more commonplace starting in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

Worker Objections

Many workers like the work they do. They get a strong sense of satisfaction from a job well done. As a result, they really don't want to stop. An indicator of how powerful this feeling is is how many workers who have a well-paying eight hour "day job" pick up a second job. Contrary to social justice urban legend, in these cases it is not desperation motivating this, it is enjoying accomplishing things.

The result is that even today, even when it isn't necessary, many workers work long hours. They are enjoying the sense of accomplishment.


This combination of management reluctance to deal with increased complexity, and workers deeply enjoying the sense of accomplishment they get from their work, is probably the root reason that basic working hours have not shortened much over the last sixty years.

If we as a community really want the work day to shorten and get more flexible, we have to deal with these two strongly felt instincts. One way is to make it easier to both get into and out of a job. We need to make getting jobs more like grocery shopping and less like getting married. If entering and exiting are easy, then workers and managers can both be more flexible and a lot more mixing and matching can happen.

--The End--