The 40-Hour Workweek?

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

Pop quiz: Since the 1950s, the length of the average American workweek has ... A) climbed. B) declined. C) stayed roughly flat.

If you picked A, you're wrong. The average employee worked 39.2 hours a week in 2006, nearly two hours less than the 40.9 the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded for 1956.

So why does it feel like we're working harder every year?

A third of those surveyed in July by Indianapolis-based business consultants Walker Information said they're forced to devote too much time to work, and 45 percent sacrifice personal balance for their jobs — increases from Walker's 2005 survey.

What's going on?

For starters, statistical averages can be misleading, lumping white-collar professionals with blue-collar and part-time workers.

While a growing chunk of the labor force regularly works 50- or 60-hour weeks, those in manufacturing have seen their hours dwindle to an average 34 per week this year. That's down from the nearly 39 the BLS reported for 1964.

"There's a bifurcation process going on where some people work excessively long hours, and there are other workers who can't get enough hours,'' said Vicky Lovell, director of employment and work/life programs at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Moreover, the labor force is now dominated by two-worker families, leaving less time for child rearing and housekeeping duties that haven't gone away. People report working almost 10 hours more per week than their ideal, said Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina. Married employees "are working three jobs — two in the workplace and one at home,'' he said.

Given all this, is the notion of the 40-hour workweek even relevant?

Technology has supplied flexibility, allowing us to work outside typical office hours and to stay in contact while on vacation. This can be a double-edged sword — Mom can attend a child's soccer game, but may spend the whole time working on her Blackberry. It also complicates the question of measuring her work hours.

"It's very hard to track hours now, because work is portable and fungible,'' said Lonnie Golden, professor of economics and labor studies at Penn State Abington.

Golden would like employers to be upfront about unwritten expectations, whether for taking work home or putting in 50- or 60-hour weeks. "A lot of employees are surprised by how much mandatory additional work is expected,'' he said.

Companies often push existing workers harder, rather than hire new employees. Each newcomer, after all, means another paycheck and a costly benefits package.

But while white-collar professionals accept a longer workweek, it makes sense to consider a shorter week for people in high-stress or hazardous professions, where fatigue could cause safety problems, Golden said.

"We all somehow think it's written in stone that the workweek is supposed to be 40,'' he said.

In fact, a century ago, industrial and farm workers routinely labored 10, 12 or 14 hours on each of six or even seven days. The eight-hour day was standardized in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which phased in a 40-hour workweek two years later. The new law granted higher pay to workers who exceeded those limits, aiming not just to curb exploitation but to boost job creation and bring the country out of the Great Depression.

"The cry was, 'eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will,''' said Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

But as service jobs have come to dominate the U.S. economy, more workers are exempt from the manufacturing-oriented standards laid out in the 1930s, and ineligible for overtime pay.

They "are essentially given freedom — in exchange for not getting overtime — to be able to perform these professional duties at different times,'' said Donald Grimes, a labor economist at the University of Michigan.

Americans now work more than their counterparts in most other industrialized countries, with an average of 1,809 hours in 2006. That's topped by South Korea's 2,302 hours but well ahead of 1,648 hours in the United Kingdom, 1,468 hours in France and 1,355 in Germany, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Europe's universal health coverage makes it easier for employers to offer shorter weeks, since additional workers don't increase their health care burden, Williams said. "The lack of universal health coverage plays a large role in fueling overwork in the U.S.,'' she said.

What's more, Williams added, Americans get a huge payoff for toiling in professions that expect more hours — "people who work 45 hours a week earn double what people who work 35 hours a week earn.''

Companies increasingly gauge success by how employees meet objectives rather than the number of hours they work, said Peter Handal, chairman of Dale Carnegie & Associates, based in Hauppauge, N.Y.

This puts more responsibility on individuals to manage their own work/life balance, and limit work hours when burnout is approaching. And for many fields, it relegates the notion of a time clock to ancient history.

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)

This article was originally published on Monday, August 27, 2007.