The 40-Hour Workweek: Coming to Save America

150 years of experience says too much overtime sucks for you, your boss and the economy.

Don't cry, mister. All you're losing is your health, your humanity and your sanity. (Photo: Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Mar 15, 2012
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Working more and enjoying it less? Writer Sara Robinson can tell you exactly why that is.

In Wednesday’s Salon, Robinson explores the causes and consequences of America’s ever-expanding cult of unpaid overtime. Rampant job insecurity is cited as the engine powering a trend toward an all-too-common 55-hour workweek. The downside: Quality-of-life hits to individual workers, profit loss to employers, and economic stagnation to the country as a whole.

Robinson presumes she’s making a startling premise:

It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits—starting right now, today—is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.

Back in 1914, when Henry Ford cut factory shifts from nine hours to eight, the understanding that workers and employers were both best served by five eight-hour days was gaining acceptance—by labor and by business owners alike. The 40-hour principle, Robinson notes, was established as an American standard in 1937 as part of FDR’s New Deal.

A Reagan-era breed of management defined the sci-tech personality, which expressed itself in working to the exclusion of physical, emotional and psychological needs, as “passion.”

Today’s more-is-more ethos is traced to Silicone Valley startups of the late 1970s, where scientists and technologists exhibiting the “sci-tech personality” (eerily similar to Asperger’s Syndrome) routinely converted every waking hour into a working hour. In the early ’80s, according to Robinson’s timeline, a Reagan-era breed of management defined the “laser-like focus” of the sci-tech personality, which expressed itself in working to the exclusion of physical, emotional and psychological needs, as “passion.”

“Passion” is what drove the original Macintosh team to wear T-shirts proclaiming, “working 90 hours a week and loving it!” Robinson cites productivity experts who believe the original Mac would have arrived a year sooner if the team had worked half as many hours.

The extensive, well-documented Salon story, “Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week,” goes on to explore the diminishing returns of overtime crunches, the effect of mandatory extra hours on unemployment rates, and the likelihood of restoring what for decades had been a win-win practice for labor and business—an honest eight hours a day, five days a week.

Robinson’s point of view is reasoned and unabashedly biased. The question she raises is one that deserves the consideration of everyone who works: Would America be better off today if we had a mandatory 40-hour workweek?

Count the ways in comments.

Thanks to Boing Boing for the tip.

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