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Was the 40-Hour Workweek Created to Make Us Depressed?

Research consistently confirms shorter work weeks lead to more happiness and productivity. Why, then, are bosses and companies so hell-bent on working us to the bone?

In his tune “Workin’ Man Blues,” late country music hero Merle Haggard describes a hardworking lifestyle that most of us can relate to:

I keep my nose on the grindstone, work hard every day
I might get a little tired on the weekend after I draw my pay
But I go back to working, come Monday morning I’m right back with the crew

It’s a depressingly accurate depiction of the 40-hour (and often longer) workweek — we spend the majority of our time either clocked in or mentally preparing to be. This is despite overwhelming proof that shorter workweeks are a win for everyone: Large-scale trials repeatedly show that workers are happier and more productive when they’re given more spare time.

So, what gives? Are Big Business and the government collaborating to maintain exhaustion among the masses? Was the 40-hour workweek developed to keep us in a perpetual state of malaise so we spend more on commercial conveniences like Postmates? Or is The Man just preserving these less productive long hours to manufacture depression so we buy more booze and take more pills?

While the sad state we’re in may be a dreadful side effect of the 40-hour workweek, the general consensus is that it’s actually unintentional. For a more accurate depiction of how we got here, I spoke with historian Ben Hunnicutt, author of numerous books on the delicate balance of work and leisure, including Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work and Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream

Here’s the real story (shortened because we’re all working too much to read the long version): If we time traveled to hunter-gatherer America, the majority of people would be working no more than four hours a day and 15 hours a week. They’d spend that time hunting and gathering, but would otherwise be free to make music, explore, socialize and do whatever else a person did before iPhones.

Then came the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s, which Hunnicutt describes as the dawn of organized work. The labor market arose. Jobs became more disciplined. Factory workers regularly grinded for 12 or more hours a day. While grueling, all that labor did wonders for American civilization. Hunnicutt says it’s “undoubtedly one of the reasons why the industrialized nations in the capitalist systems became increasingly wealthy.” It also came with a promise of higher pay and more spare time in the future, which is one of the reasons why so many farmers converged to work in factories.

In a rare instance of American history, that promise actually came true: From the early 1800s to the mid-1900s, which Hunnicutt appropriately calls “The Century of Short Hours,” people began spending less and less time on the clock. This change arose from a collaboration of forces. Businessmen like Henry Ford gave their workers weekends in the 1920s, laying the foundation for the five-day workweek. Labor unions emerged, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, who successfully went on strike for higher wages and shorter hours in the men’s clothing industry during the 1930s. Meanwhile, laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 were put into place to limit the workweek to 44 (and eventually 40) hours.

But all of these happenings were underscored by an even more momentous public consensus that people needed more spare time. “It was a phenomenon of the free marketplace, of people — bosses and hirelings, as they once were called — making a myriad of choices of time versus money,” Hunnicutt explains.

According to Hunnicutt, these choices were often motivated by religion. “Work was for regaining the Kingdom of God in religious circles,” he says, pointing to early American preachers like Jonathan Edwards, who believed The Machine would eventually lead us back to the Garden of Eden, a paradise of work-life balance. (Speaking of religion, observing Saturdays and Sundays as days of rest are longstanding Christian and Jewish traditions, which served as bases for our modern-day weekend.)

This philosophy of work influenced public opinion well into the 1900s, and many believed that working hours would only continue to decrease. As early as 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes envisioned a 15-hour workweek. In 1956, soon-to-be President Richard Nixon predicted a four-day workweek. Up until 1959, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings as metaphors for the free time he suspected Americans would soon enjoy — as places to realize our full humanity.

Then a paradigm shift happened. Rather than working toward more recreation, Hunnicutt says, “Work became an end in itself.”

As America developed more secular perspectives, especially into the 1960s and 1970s, Hunnicutt says we began turning to jobs for purpose and identity. As he puts it, we developed a work ethic “that condemns leisure as, at best, a way of preparing yourself for work.”

The impetus for this change in attitude is debatable. In the 1920s and 1930s — the Great Depression era — leisure was discussed by politicians as a threat to America. As such, corporations were encouraged to manufacture demand to spur the economy and create more jobs. Likewise, rather than passing a 30-hour workweek as was promised in the Black-Connery bill of 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt abandoned work sharing — a reduction of hours that allowed more people to hold work through the Great Depression, which former President Herbert Hoover backed as a solution for unemployment — and instead prepared the government to manufacture more jobs. His belief, according to Hunnicutt, was that the government should “create enough work to replace that which technology has made redundant.”

In essence, Roosevelt set a precedent for growing the government to develop jobs, spending beyond our means and creating endless amounts of work, which has been the story of America — and the 40-hour workweek — ever since.

All of this is to say that, no, the 40-hour workweek wasn’t put into place because the powers that be want us to be depressed. As Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang puts it to me, it was merely “a compromise between unions, capital and the government.”

And now we’re stuck with it because people don’t like change. “Lots of managers have grown up with the idea that longer hours automatically equal more output,” Pang says. “Furthermore, our models of success are people in finance and Silicon Valley who glamorize long hours, insane levels of commitment and careers that peak when you’re young, which sends clear signals about the need to overwork.”

That’s not to say we’ll never have shorter workweeks. Hunnicutt certainly hopes that the demand for time will grow and spark a “renaissance of the forgotten dream” that Keynes and Wright believed in.

But until then, we’ll all have to make good use of what time we have, as Haggard croons:

I drink a little beer that evening
Just sing a little bit of these working man blues