What happened to the six-hour workday?

The tragic downfall of the 30-hour workweek

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by 2030, the workweek would shrink to as low as 15 hours. As living standards and wages rose in progressive countries, he suggested, people would choose to work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure time.

Granted, 2030 is still about 16 years off, but it's probably safe to say that Keynes missed the mark. Though our living standards have risen like he suggested, the workweek in the U.S. has lingered at around 40 hours (though the gap among workers is wide). This has happened despite a lot of evidence — and even real life experiments — showing that a shorter work week leads not only to more satisfied workers, but higher productivity.

As Lauren Davidson points out in Quartz, in 1930, K.W. Kellogg, he of Corn Flakes fame, instituted a six-hour workday and a 12.5 percent pay raise — resulting in more hires (which the country desperately needed at that moment) and only a small drop in individual pay. As Davidson says, this initially proved "immensely popular" with employees.

If satisfaction sounds like a secondary concern, it's worth noting that workweeks also correlate with higher productivity, as The Economist shows in this chart of OECD nations. "The Greeks are some of the most hardworking in the OECD, putting in over 2,000 hours a year on average," it says. "Germans, on the other hand, are comparative slackers, working about 1,400 hours each year. But German productivity is about 70 percent higher."

Studies over the last half century have shown that productivity caps out at eight hours for manual laborers, and even less for "knowledge workers" — those who sit at desks and deal with words and data. These workers generally only churn out about five to six "good, productive hours of hard mental work" a day, says Sara Robinson in Salon. "After six hours, all [the boss has] really got left is a butt in a chair."

So, with all this data supporting fewer work hours, what happened to Keynes' idea? Why aren't we spending more time playing golf and goofing around with our kids?

Theories abound. When it came to the Kellogg experiment, between World War II and the late 1950s, "many workers, especially male employees, seem to have changed their tastes" when it came to six-hour work days," wrote Robert Whaples at Mr Zine in a review of a book on the topic. In the '50s, a new management team arrived, one that may have tended to "denigrate and 'feminize' shorter hours."

They became embarrassed by the short hours that they were working — shorter than the shifts worked by men at other local jobs. They changed their rhetoric, downplaying the freedom that leisure gave….

Six-hour workdays wouldn't let them keep up with the Joneses, and many men did not receive much enjoyment from their marginal leisure hours. "Like management, senior male workers were concerned about the loss of status and control. Several men told about the friction that resulted when the men spent too much time around the house: "The wives didn't like the men underfoot all day." "The wife always found something for me to do if I hung around." "We got into a lot of fights." Many of the men confessed that they were at loose ends when they were working six hours. [Mr Zine]

By 1985, every department had returned to eight-hour days.

The Economist points out that higher wages might actually have the reverse effect of what Keynes predicted. Higher earnings may entice people to work even harder.

One important question concerns whether appetite for work actually diminishes as people earn more. There are countervailing effects. On the one hand, a higher wage raises the opportunity cost of leisure time and should lead people to work more. On the other hand, a higher income should lead a worker to consume more of the stuff he or she enjoys, which presumably includes leisure. [The Economist]

Both explanations seem plausible, but another theory seems to hit a little closer to home. "Keynes' big failure was to recognise that distribution matters," Larry Elliot pointed out in The Guardian. Those who make the lowest wages, and are often paid by the hour, must work 40 hours a week — often much more — simply to get by.

Meanwhile, many of those who make higher wages are faced with a different motivation to work long hours. "The gap between the top 1 percent of earners and the rest has widened, but so has the gap between the top 0.1 percent and the rest of those in the highest bracket," he explains.

Similarly, the gap has widened between the top-paid doctors and their fellows, and among all other sub-groups of society. Rich doctors spend more as they get richer, which leads to all other doctors wanting to spend more as well. Not all of them can afford to maintain the spending habits of their better-off peers, and as a result they borrow. The result, contrary to what Keynes may have imagined, has been a collapse in savings ratios in the US and Britain. Debt levels and bankruptcies have soared. [The Guardian]

In the end, it's only the very top — the 0.1 percent — who are spending their ample incomes on leisure time.

For the rest of us, there's always Workaholics Anonymous.


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