How America settled on a 5-day workweek

Estimated read time 6 min read

Should the U.S. adopt a four-day workweek? The question has been a hot-button issue for years, and legislators recently reintroduced a potential law that would take the U.S. workweek from a maximum of 40 to just 32 hours.

But as you consider what you’d do with an extra day off every week, you may wonder why so many Americans are required to work 40 hours to begin with—or why Saturday and Sunday are considered sacred days off. Here’s how those concepts became workplace norms.

Why we work five-day weeks
For centuries, U.S. employers expected their workers to put in lengthy workweeks. But in the early 19th century many began to grant one exception: Sunday. This was largely due to lobbying by Sabbatarians, Christians who successfully pushed for laws that forced first post offices, then other businesses to close on the Sabbath. They argued that the Sixth Commandment required Christians to abstain from travel, work, or even recreation on this holy day.

But Jewish workers observed their Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday, and this created conflict at workplaces. By the early 20th century, some factories started closing on both Saturday and Sunday to accommodate their workers’ religious beliefs.

But it would take Henry Ford to conduct the first widespread trial of the concept. In 1922, the industrialist told employees he was instituting a 40-hour, five-day workweek and that his automotive plants would be closed Saturdays and Sundays. The shorter week did not come with the same amount of pay; rather, Ford set a daily wage that constituted a pay cut for workers accustomed to working longer weeks.

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The plan sparked a nationwide controversy about weekends—and lots of opposition from employers and newspapers like the New York Herald, which in 1922 scoffed that “The Ford plan is joyous news to all who like to think of bringing work down to the irresistible minimum.” But Ford’s experiment was a success: He boasted that his factories remained equally productive, while the reduced hours allowed workers to spend more of their hard-earned dollars in their communities. He even claimed the change filled church pews. Soon, other big businesses followed suit, pushed along by the labor movement, and by the 1930s the five-day workweek was the norm.

Why we work 8-hour days
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, long workdays were expected in European nations whose economies were being transformed by factories and technological progress. This resulted in more work—and more labor exploitation.

“The factory children, rising in the morning long before the sun or the dawn of the day, some without shoes or stockings, might be seen dragging their weary bodies through the rain and snow along the streets of Christian Manchester,” wrote Samuel H.G. Kidd in an 1857 history of the British labor movement.

But in the 1830s workers began to demand legislation that limited working hours. “Short Time Committees” held hearings throughout England, advocating for a 10-hour workday, and finally prevailed in 1847 with the Factories Act.

These victories inspired American workers, too. Many U.S. employers began to switch from 12- and even 14-hour workdays to 10-hour days like the British.

But the Civil War produced the first mass push for the eight-hour day. As soldiers returned from the war and newly freed African Americans sought jobs, labor advocates worried that these new workers would undercut wages and be exploited by employers who demanded long hours and offered low pay. So workers formed “Eight-Hour Leagues” and began pushing for “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.”

(Learn about Labor Day’s surprisingly radical origins.)

An eight-hour day would employ more people, advocates argued, and make factories more efficient. But many employers worried that more leisure would cause laziness and moral collapse among workers. “Idle days breed mischief,” argued real estate mogul James Carey Martien. “The days are too short for the worthwhile men of the world to accomplish the tasks which they set themselves.”

Despite these arguments, labor unions staged walkouts, strikes, and other rallies in favor of the eight-hour day. But though some laws resulted, most were restricted to certain professions like railroad workers and contained many loopholes and exceptions

It would take World War I, when demand for employees surged, to carve the workday down to eight hours for most workers. But it would take longer for the length of the work week to be federally regulated.

Why we work 40-hour weeks
By the 1930s, eight-hour days and five-day weeks were widely accepted—although far from universal.

In 1938, legislators passed the Fair Labor Standards Act—a landmark labor law that established the first minimum wage and banned child labor. Although the law did not set a specific number of hours an employee could work per day or days per week, it forced employers to pay overtime to hourly employees who worked more than 44 hours a week.

“A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours,” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a 1937 speech supporting the act.

But a 40-hour workweek was always the intent of the law. As written, it gave employers two years to adjust to paying overtime. Then, in 1940, the mandated maximum was scheduled to drop to 40 hours a week, where it has remained ever since.

Why the U.S. is a ‘no-vacation nation’
In the decades since, American labor laws have expanded, covering everything from workplace safety to discrimination and union membership. But Americans still lack one reform successfully gained by labor activists in other countries: paid vacation.

(How to disconnect from work while on vacation.)

The U.S. remains what analysts from the Center for Economic and Policy Research call a “no-vacation nation”—the only advanced economy with zero guaranteed vacation days for its workers. In contrast, nations like France and Australia guarantee up to 30 days’ vacation and have multiple paid holidays. The U.S. offers 11 paid holidays for federal employees—less than half of those enjoyed by Cambodians, for example, who celebrate a whopping 29 public holidays.

Any paid or guaranteed vacation time U.S. employees do receive is at the whim of employers, not the federal government. And just because an employer pays for vacation doesn’t mean U.S. employees take advantage: In one 2017 survey, 54 percent of U.S. respondents said they hadn’t used all of their vacation time. But if legislators have their way, Americans may soon have longer weekends to make up for it.

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