The forty hour work week / by kevin murray

In the present day, the forty hour work week is the norm in the United States but it hasn't always been that way.  At the beginning, life in America was life in the wilderness in which you, your family, and your society worked as many hours as were required in order to provide food, shelter, and to survive.  Back then, this was primarily an agrarian society, a farming society, in which the overriding concern was subsistence and an attempt to create a stable life on the land that you worked and developed.  Over time, however, America became industrialized and it became quite common for people to work for someone else other than family because the efficiency of farms had reduced the needs for labor and the price of land was unaffordable for most, therefore people gravitated towards jobs that would pay them a wage. 


While those jobs entailed working long hours and often under arduous conditions, the average standard of living for Americans increased steadily during the industrial age to wit that people ate better, were clothed better, lived longer, and were able to afford more goods in which thanks to industrialization, competition, and market forces; goods were priced competitively and often cheaper than in previous time periods. The hours that the average American worked in the 1830s was estimated by the Week Report to be 69.1 hours per week, and by 1900 scholars estimated that it had dropped to just under 60 hours per week.   


Near the start of the 20th century, Henry Ford, of the Ford Motor Company, in 1914, more than doubled the pay of his assembly line workers from $2.34/day to $5/day (this pay encompassed a base pay, a bonus, and character requirements), and decrease the hours worked per day from nine hours to eight hours. Far from being altruistic, the pay increase on Ford's part was a necessary move and brilliant way to slow down his costly turnover rate in personnel, Ford's gamble was that a more than fair salary would encourage a more stable workforce and therefore ultimately provide his company with additional profits and growth, in which he got both as well as the public benefiting from the price of the Model-T dropping after the aforementioned pay raise!


Henry Ford than followed this up in 1926 with the forty hour work week.  It was Ford's belief that in return for a reduced work week his employees productivity would actually increase and Ford said: "just as the eight hour day opened our way to prosperity, so the five day week will open our way to a still greater prosperity."  While Ford Motor was not the first company to go to a five-day work week, they were the largest company heretofore to do so and became an industry and trend leader by accomplishing this important change.  Under FDR, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 passed, which established minimum wage standards, overtime pay, and the forty hour work week which is still the standard that we adhere to today.


Is it time for our labor laws or our visions of prosperity to be revisited?  Henry Ford said: "we try to pay a man what he is worth and we are not inclined to keep a man who is not worth more than the minimum wage." Ford also said: "business is the exchange of goods. Goods are bought only as they meet needs. Needs are filled only as they are felt. They make themselves felt largely in leisure hours."   


Forty hour work week?  Eight hour work day?  For change to come, it's going to have to come from a huge market leader thinking outside the box and being bold.