Why do we work 9-5?
US work culture revolves around employees putting in eight hours a day, five days a week — a schedule immortalized by Dolly Parton in her 1980 song “9 to 5.” It’s just the norm, many assume. Same as it ever was. Except, it wasn’t always so. It has just held steady at that level since World War II.
How the United States landed on the eight-hour standard wasn’t the result of one union or one industry, one company or one law. Rather it came about after a long and complex mix of labour actions, advocacy, political compromises, pioneering employers and economic competition.
The length of the workday over the years
Generally speaking, there was a steady decline in the length of the workday from the 1800s through World War II, with a fairly steep drop during the 1920s, said economic historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa. But the descent began from a fairly high level. In the mid-1800s, working 70-plus hours a week was common, according to economist Robert Whaples, a professor at Wake Forest University, who created a detailed timeline on the evolution of hours worked in the United States for the Economic History Association.
Given that people typically worked six days a week back then, that comes out to roughly 12 hours a day. Not that there weren’t examples in the early 20th century of people putting in far more time than that. At the end of World War I, for instance, blast furnace workers in the steel industry typically logged 84 hours a week, Whaples notes. “These abnormally long hours were the subject of much denunciation and a major issue in a strike that began in September 1919. The strike failed … but four years later US Steel reduced its workday from twelve to eight hours.”
Pioneering employers — and a six-hour workday — make waves
In 1926, the Ford Motor Company, under the leadership of Henry Ford, famously instituted an eight-hour-a-day, five-day workweek. Then, in the Great Depression, owing to high unemployment, the idea for a 6-hour workweek came into focus. Hunnicutt’s book, “Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day,” tells the story of how cereal baron W.K. Kellogg decided in 1930 to institute six-hour shifts in place of eight-hour shifts, with some reduction in workers’ pay. The move let Kellogg hire back employees who had been let go and hire other unemployed people. But he was also motivated by a conviction that giving more time back to workers was a social good. Within two years, workers had begun earning in six hours what they used to earn working eight, Hunnicutt said.
Kellogg’s move attracted national attention, and soon there was a push to federally legislate a six-hour workday. But a bill aiming to temporarily institute a 30-hour workweek, which passed in the Senate, failed in the House. Soon after, in 1933, newly-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act, under which employers entered into voluntary agreements to institute 35- to 40-hour workweeks and pay a minimum wage of $12 to $15 a week. Two years later, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the NIRA was unconstitutional due to a provision pertaining to the slaughter of chickens.
Enter the Fair Labor Standards Act
Despite the NIRA being invalidated, lawmakers and unions continued to push for better labor conditions. In the late 1930s, they created something that would establish across the board what we know today as the eight-hour-per-day, five-day workweek, in addition to setting a federal minimum wage and instituting child labour protections. In 1938, FDR signed into law the Fair Labour Standards Act, which established that employers must pay overtime to employees working more than 40 hours a week.
The perpetual trade-off between time and money
The Kellogg six-hour day, which had been popular with employees when it was put in place, didn’t last. By the late 1950s, a majority of employees had opted to resume an eight-hour day. Those who didn’t were mostly women, and they stayed with their six-hour schedule until the mid-1980s.
Hunnicutt interviewed several Kellogg workers about why they returned to a longer workday. They indicated that the need for more money would always outweigh the prospect of shorter hours, he said. They were no longer willing to trade higher pay for less time on the job. “The need for more money became absolute,” Hunnicutt said. “Leisure was devalued, no longer a normal good, no longer a part of progress.” Today, of course, the time-money trade-off is just as relevant for working adults, but with a new twist: The Covid pandemic changed people’s minds about just how consuming work should be, relative to other important parts of their lives, like time with family.
Like many labour experts, Hunnicutt wonders if Gen Z and Millennial employees might make different choices than those of previous generations. “The experience of the pandemic struck some chords,” Hunnicutt said. “There might be a way to live my life more fully and do my job at the same time. It’s on the table again.”