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Labor Day Question: Why Not Reduce the Work Week to Four Days?
As the industrial revolution changed the work force, promises were made that machines would be a sort of slave class, doing all our work, so we could work less. Strikers still had to bleed in the streets to bring us from the eighty-hour work weeks of 200 years ago to the standard forty we see today. But even back then, Bertrand Russell toured the West delivering his speech “in praise of idleness” that suggested we should work only 20 hours a week, what with machines picking up the slack. As we celebrate labor day, and enjoy the vacation-like effect of a three-day weekend, you or I might wonder, why not let every weekend be a three day weekend? Why not eradicate Fridays or Mondays?
“If you think of the economic problem we’re facing now, it’s kind of absurd. We’re basically able to make too much stuff,” said Dean Baker, co-director o the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, in an interview, reported by the Huffington Post. “Why don’t we all just work a little less and let the people who aren’t working pick up part of that time?”
Indeed, in survey by the Center for the New American Dream, 52 percent agreed that they would be willing to work one less day a week for one-fifth the pay. And as labor historian Benjamin Line Hunnicutt wrote, “by 1933, observers were predicting that the 30-hour week was within a month of becoming federal law, and that the ‘progressive shortening of the hours of labor’ was an inescapable economic fact of life and the dominant political trend.”
One reason why the 40-hour week persists – and the 60 hour week for 7 percent of employees! – is based in the instantiating effect of correlating health care with full time work, which defines and establishes full time work at a certain number of hours a week, somewhere around 40. And secondly, Americans have an anti-slacker mentality. Despite that our national poet, Walt Whitman, would sit and loaf and look at the grass all day, we have a puritanical sense of the sacredness of work that was institutionalized through the mottos, sayings, and writings of Benjamin Franklin, whose abiding virtue, aside from wit, was assuredly industry, which he extolled his entire career.
With such figures as these defining the good American as a worker, perhaps we just feel too guilty to work only 30-hours a week. But after a relaxing beer and hotdog on Labor Day, just in time for the kids to go back to school, consider whether a 4-day work week might be the next thing worth striking for.