The Reality of the 40-Hour American Workweek

The Reality of the 40-Hour American Workweek

Americans are 400% more productive today than they were in 1950.

The average American’s annual work hours exceed the Japanese by 137 hours, the Brits by 260 hours, and the Germans by 394 hours. 

Compared to the French, Americans work a whopping 499 hours more per year.

Does this make the 40-hour workweek a lie?

Keep reading to find out.

How the 40-hour Workweek Set the Standard

If a 40-hour week sounds intense, imagine 80-hour weeks. That’s what laborers in the 18th century endured. Manual, labor-heavy activities like agriculture demanded 12-14 hours daily. 

The pressure for longer workdays grew as the industrial revolution picked up steam. Unrestricted by seasons, and heightened manufacturing efforts meant there was always more work to be done. The toll this took on all laborers became quickly apparent.

In 1817, Robert Owen, a Welsh proponent of socialism, conceptualized the eight-hour workday. The idea was to split the day into thirds of eight hours between work, leisure, and sleep. This was adopted in the U.S. in the 1860s. 

Thus, the eight-hour movement sprang into existence.

In 1867, Chicago workers conducted a strike against a fruitless law; it curbed work hours on the surface, but gave employers the leeway to extend them.

It was in 1886 that the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions encouraged laborers to practice working eight hours a day. Strikes spread yet again, this time further than Illinois. The movement led to the commemoration of International Workers’ Day on May 1, aka May Day.

From then on, there was no stopping the change. By the start of the 20th century, the 40-hour workweek was the norm in the printing trade, and also in the automobile industry.

On June 25, 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. It stipulated the workweek to be 44 hours, which was further reduced to 40 hours. On October 24, 1940, the act came into practice.

Fundamentals of the Work Week

The current workday in the U.S. is typically from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., with an hour for lunch. Like in most of the world, workdays are Monday to Friday, while Saturday and Sunday are considered the weekend. 

As of 2019, a full-time worker’s weekday ended after 8.5 hours on the job. For part-time workers, it was 5.58 hours. On average, private-sector employees racked up 34.9 hours of work per week in 2020.

Coffee breaks are compensated for by law, but meal breaks aren’t. The hourly federal minimum wage is $7.25. Employees can get higher minimum wages if authorized by individual state laws.

Any work period that exceeds 40 hours is deemed overtime. The overtime rate is 1.5 times the regular hourly wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Leave Regulations

The U.S. is the only country amongst 41 that doesn’t federally require leave to be paid. Some state governments have implemented paid leave policies, including New York, California, and Washington. 

Medical or parental leave of 12 weeks is allowed. It can be used for personal health, looking after an immediate family member, or childcare. Birth, adoption, and caretaking are all acceptable reasons as well.

This is not without a caveat or two. The employee should have worked with the same employer for at least 1,250 hours for 12 months. Plus, they need to be on the payroll of an employer large enough to have 50 staff within a 75-mile radius of the workspace.   

Gender, Age, and Industry Disparities

A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) population survey found that men working full-time averaged 42.5 hours a week, while it was 40.3 hours per week for women. The 2.2-hour gap in weekly hours exists between the sexes thanks to the societally enforced domestic duties of the latter; primarily those duties related to their family.

The responsibility often falls on mothers to look after children’s needs. When extenuating circumstances hit, mothers are more likely need to scale back their office hours before fathers.

Age fosters discrepancies in its own way. The BLS survey further revealed that 16-19-year-olds put in 38.3 hours weekly, and 20–24-year-olds dedicate 39.9 hours full-time. Those who are 25 and over devote 41.7 hours every week to work.

With age comes responsibility. The American mindset is wealth-driven; making money takes precedence over comfort. Moreover, there is a stigma that they are less inclined to hard work compared to those in developing countries, instilling in many a need to prove otherwise.

The differences extend between industries, too. Based on 2021 data, mining and logging workers have the maximum number of weekly hours, at 44.8.

In contrast, leisure and hospitality personnel work for 26.6 hours a week. Hours per week for manufacturing, information, and retail amount to 40.5, 37.5, and 30.9, respectively. Most other workers’ hours fall within this range.

A Precarious Balancing Act

Academics Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian found that American life is driven by three aspirations of perfection: as a worker, as a parent, and health. The possibility of fulfilling one aspect is an illusion; achieving all three would require magic.

Consider Owen’s proposition. While primitive, it sounded ideal, splitting time equally between work, rest, and recreation. However, an eight-hour workday means that chores and catering to others are crammed into the remaining 16 hours a day, leaving negligible moments for the self. That’s not accounting for the hours spent commuting and working overtime.

For working parents especially, the choice between dedicating time to private or professional matters is not easy. According to the BLS, in 2020, 95.3% of married couples with children consisted of one working parent. The same was true for 88.5% of all families with children. 

Shifting toward A Four-Day Work Week?

Truth be told, the 40-hour workweek has existed since the 19th century, but predominantly in theory. Even for the first fifteen years of the 21st century, employees were clocking 44-47 hours weekly.

However, a steady decline in work duration is evident now. People are progressively recognizing the importance of prioritizing personal time. Likewise, a realization has struck management: longer hours don’t equal higher output. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Pushing workers to keep their nose to the grindstone hugely affects efficiency. Burnout inches closer, and by the time the alarm bells ring, it’s often too late.

Overcoming the need to overwork is not only beneficial for the individual, but also the society. Community building activities and social engagements are only possible when time permits. The 2019 “Ecological Limits of Work” report even pointed to a correlation between lesser work hours and curtailing climate change.  While advocacy for shortened hours is gaining traction, the real shift will happen only when it becomes part of the political agenda. The day might not be far off when the four-day work week is declared as binding. Until then, the 40-hour work week, or at least the notion of it, isn’t going anywhere.

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