It’s Time To Shorten The American Work Week

Above Photo: Peter Cade  VIA GETTY IMAGES

Americans are one of the most overworked populations in the world. With the average worker clocking 47 hours a week, Americans work more hours per year than almost any other industrialized country — 423 more than German workers, 248 more than workers in the United Kingdom, and 266 more hours a year than French workers, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developmentstatistics. The United States is also the only industrialized country without national parental leave benefits or legally mandated paid vacation. Most European countries require at least 20 days of paid holiday and vacation time — the French actually get an entire month of annual vacation. Can you imagine?

As with a wide variety of different workers’ rights, the United States lies well behind the rest of the industrialized world. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, workers in the United States were once on the front lines of the struggle for a shortened work week. Back in the early days of industrial capitalism, it was not uncommon for workers to work anywhere between 10-16 hours a day. But a bloody, centuries-long battle fought by socialists, unionists, and other similar groups in the United States won us the 40-hour work week in 1938.

As labor’s power grew through the early 20th century, and as technological innovations completely altered the nature of the workplace, people began to fantasize about working even less than 40 hours. Prominent economists like John Maynard Keynes were even making utopian prophecies that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks in the 21st century.