Why the 40-hour workweek is too long

Economists and scientists predicted shorter hours for US laborers nearly a century ago. Why hasn't it happened?

By Jason Notte Jul 9, 2013 4:06PM
Image: Businesswoman working at computer © Jose Luis Pelaez Inc, Blend Images, Getty ImagesStill dreaming of a four-day workweek? In historical terms, you're dreaming small.

CNNMoney's ongoing series on the "New American Workplace" took a look at the 40-hour workweek, adopted shortly after the Great Depression, and how employers have toyed with it during the economic crisis. The key finding is that lots of workers have been forced to either shorten their workweeks or approach them differently as employers cut back.

At the height of the recession, Utah tried cramming 40-hour workweeks for its government employees into four 10-hour days in order to save on operating costs and avoid layoffs. The government was able to cut costs, while the employees got an extra day off without having to take a hit to their paychecks. But even those 40-hour workweeks fall well short of the ideal.

"Cutting hours of work can have positive effects on employment levels during a severe economic downturn," the International Labour Organization noted in a report last month.

Shortened hours can be used to create jobs, the ILO said, as fewer hours for one worker mean more work for another. Since the economic crisis, lots of workers have been forced to shorten their workweek as their employers cut back. Still, that falls well short of what economic thinkers and social scientists were predicting less than a century ago.

In 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted technological advancements would mean we would all eventually work just 15 hours a week. That same year, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley predicted the two-day workweek. As recently as 1965, a Senate subcommittee predicted we would be working 14 hours a week by the year 2000, with at least seven weeks of vacation time.

The reality? The U.S. can't even mandate vacation time, never mind providing seven weeks of it. Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, calls the shorter workweek the "forgotten American dream."

"New marketing techniques of corporate America were able to convince us to buy things we had never seen before and had never needed before," he said. "Work was valorized -- elevated to the center of life more so than it ever had been before, and leisure was demoted and trivialized."

Meanwhile, the average German worker puts in 394 hours less than an American each year -- or nearly 10 fewer weeks. Germany is way smaller than the United States in area, population and resources, but still manages to be the fourth largest economy and third largest exporter in the world. Dutch workers, meanwhile, are on par with American workers in terms of productivity per hour, but pay higher taxes and earn less than Americans. On average, however, they work roughly 11 weeks less than their American counterparts each year, have access to government-funded health care, pay little or nothing for a college education and have far more leisure time than the average American.

While Americans settle for two weeks of vacation or none at all, their forbears and European neighbors continue to shake their heads in bewilderment at a workforce that puts in so much time for so little.

More on moneyNOW

Jul 9, 2013 5:44PM
I've never understood why Americans prefer working to actually having a life.  Life is bigger than work. I can't imagine anyone on their deathbed wishing they had worked more.
Jul 9, 2013 6:50PM
...people work 40 hours a week? I'm REQUIRED to work 50 on salary, and they even want me to stay longer. It's come to the point I am not as efficient. Employers think longer hours = more work done. That's not the case. I was able to get MORE work done MORE efficiently when I only worked 8 hours a day. Why? Because my mind was set, it knew what it had to do, and it managed time correctly to do it.

Now... I have to stay 9? 9.5? 10 hours? Regardless of whether I get my work done or not? Well... It's called burn out people. I can't work that hard for that long. So I become less efficient. And because it eats into my 'stress free' time at home, I become even more less efficient. More unhappy which = you guessed it! Less efficiency.

So when are the employers going to stop, look around, and realize slave driving only gets them employees who do JUST enough not to get fired? Because people like me, who do work hard and enjoy working hard, get burnt out and our potential is NOT reached.

Jul 9, 2013 5:32PM

We're nuts for working this hard. We have no time with our families. Both parents have to work to make ends meet. It's insane. It's big business/corporate America screwing us again. Working us to death. Oh and you know what you get when you're done working for them? Nothing. Most Americans die broke.


We should be down to a 32 hours work week at the very least. We should have 6-7 weeks of vacation time as well. We need to push for these rules/laws to be put in place now. If we cut the work week down to 32 hours guess what? The company will have to hire more people.


OMG more people will have jobs! More time with their families. OMG OMG it will be terrible!!!!!

Jul 9, 2013 5:29PM
Germany doesn't have the lifetime welfare class that America does, so universal health care and free college are more palatable.  More people pull their weight over there, unlike America where the productive 53% have to work longer to support a good number of Obama voters.
Jul 9, 2013 5:52PM
What the heck is a 40 hour work week? I don't remember the last time I worked one of those. Here at my JOB we have been working over 60 hours a week and working 7 days a weeks is really starting to bit really really bad. I would love to work just 40hrs a week. I think my stress level would drop in half if I did.
Jul 9, 2013 6:06PM
We earn Less while the CEO's make more and more. Oust the CEO's and we can fix the problem of most middle class families. Why do we as working citizens tolerate such a gap in pay? Why do we put these people on pedestals and think they we save the company we work for. We treat them like gods and they are nothing more than a person. None of these people care anything about the company. All they care about is how much money they are going to make while rolling the dice with everyone's lives. This gap has to be narrowed. A company run by its employees will outlast any company run by one man or woman. It is time we take back what belongs to us and stop letting the Presidents and the CEO's DICTATE our freaking lives!!
Jul 9, 2013 5:57PM
Nice thing about salary exempt status... You can work just as many hours as you want. As long as you continue to do the jobs of two or three people.
Jul 9, 2013 7:59PM
I finally came up with the answer a few years ago. I started my own business. Now I enjoy my life once again. It was scary at first but it's amazing how many folks want to see the little guy succeed. Instead of making a ton of money I've  opted to spend more time on R&R and more time with my kids. Life really is short. Make a plan and go for it. You will soon learn how to succeed if you have a  passion. If you don't have a passion, well you can always work for the man and the scraps he throws you. That was the reality I came to in my last years with the man.
Jul 9, 2013 5:33PM
This story should have a direct link from yesterday's story titled "Who Killed the American Dream". MSN -They ask the question one day and answer it themselves the next day. 
Jul 9, 2013 6:23PM

40 hours a week would be a dream for us!  My husband puts in 50 to 55 hours a week with no end in sight.  The 2 weeks of vacation he does get has to be saved for emergencies and sick leave.  With 2 sets of elderly parents to care for and me (his wife) being disabled (I am not receiving any government help), My husband is exhausted all the time.


And Now they want everyone to put off retirement until 68 or 70 or 75.  We will be lucky if he is able to make it to 62. 


This is automotive/truck/oilfield/irrigation/farm equipment parts and repair business....a small business owned by one family where my husband has been employed since 1975.  The small businesses are forced to cut back because they are squeezed from all sides...mostly the government...less people have to do more work.  It is an impossible to hold up under these circumstances.

Jul 9, 2013 6:26PM
If you want the easy life, snag you a federal job that pays way too much, more time off than the private sector, and no accountability while there.  That my friends... is the American Dream!
Jul 9, 2013 4:13PM
Don't Worry, Obamacare will reduce it to below 30 hours....  But there will NO EXTRA pay for the hours not worked.   You will just have to get used to earning LESS money as your hours are cut back....
Jul 9, 2013 5:37PM
I theorize that more MANDATED paid vacations would actually help the economy.  Employers would have to hire more employees to cover the additional time and the leisure industry would expand big time, also necessitating more employees.  A win-win for everyone
Jul 9, 2013 6:12PM
I'm sick of morons bringing "obamacare" into every conversation about anything and everything!the reason the "14 hour work week" never materialized is.........the "upper" class simply wouldn't allow  their worker bees to do anything other than making sure they have everything they want in life. meanwhile hard working citizens kill themselves for peanuts and are told "if you weren't so lazy you wouldn't be poor".
90% of the 99% work 100% harder than 99% of the 1% ever have or ever will !!!
the people who control everything ,CONTROL EVERYTHING!!!!!
including healthcare,education,wages,foreign policy,and the minds of those that they exploit who defend them and their actions even though they directly reduce their own quality of life on a daily basis!
"obamacare" may be terrible ,but it has come AFTER at least a CENTURY of oppression by those who profit from  the PAIN and SUFFERING of the general populous.
we have it all wrong,we've been tricked into fighting over minutia like this while they laugh all the way to our graves!!!

Jul 9, 2013 7:19PM

There's definitely a case that we don't need to work more than a few hours a day on average.  After all with productivity gains in agriculture and construction, how many manhours are needed to meet our true needs of food, water, and shelter?  Even today if you were really only looking to meet these basic needs as cost efficiently as possible, would you need to work more than a few hours of minimum wage?


Our standard of living has evolved to include many wants like cable, computers, cars, etc. Its all the extras that keep us slaving away...

Jul 9, 2013 10:14PM
If Obama decides to actually implement Obamacare then this article will become a moot point. 

If  we quit being the world cop and quit giving money to countries that want to cut off our heads and spit down our neck maybe we could enjoy more free time and actually have our tax dollars given back to the taxpayers in the form of affordable health care and some of the "luxuries" some of the European countries enjoy. When was the last time the news reported that Denmark, or any European country for that matter, sent an army into some foreign country to do battle.
Jul 9, 2013 6:49PM
I remember how they said that recreation would be more and more important as we worked less and less. Now I work a full time and a part time job. Thanks, 1%ers.
Jul 9, 2013 6:03PM
a 40 hour work week is a good balance, 8 hours work, 8 hours play or what ever,8 hours sleep. figuring in travel, shopping, errands ect, it really doesn't amount to 8 ,8 and 8 but close. the work day itself, say  with 1- 45min lunch and 2- 15 min brakes ,would leave about 6 hr and 45min of actual productive work time, this should be good enough for anybody, employers and workers . what I see today is nobody wants to work ,but they want the big bucks. I had a construction company for 35 yrs and this system, or one very close to it worked for me, I had more people wanting to work for me, than the business could handle, used to be that people wanted to work and do their best, gave them self worth, and pride of accomplishment, and at least by me were well compensated. everybody was happy, employees, customers, and myself. it seems now a days that a lot of people want the most for the least, this is sad as it benefits nobody.      jimwho    Chicago
Jul 9, 2013 5:43PM
Republican voters,

Do you support national Republicans attempts to end/repeal the 40 hour workweek and overtime pay protection?

Repubs were just defeated in another attempt to repeal overtime pay in May, 2013.

Jul 9, 2013 5:31PM
I work 40 hours a week. Easy job, benefits. Love my job.
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