The Origin Of The 8-Hour Work Day: Why Do We Work For 8 Hours A Day 5 Days A Week?


As you know, one of the most unchanged routines of our life today is our optimal work time. Almost all over the world, most people work for 8 hours a day 5 days a week. But why? What’s the origin of this? Has it always been like this? Here are the answers...

It all started with the Industrial Revolution.

In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, companies and factory owners kept the factories in operation from dusk till dawn in order to use the daylight in the most efficient way so that they could maximize their profits. Because the hourly wages were low, the workers were trying to stand up during these long working hours and even forced their children to adapt to this inhumane routine instead of sending them to the school. During this period, workers were forced to work for six days a week and 10-18 hours a day.

This began to change in the 19th century.

Robert Owen, the British businessman, was the first person to recommend an eight-hour work day. According to him, the day had to be divided into three equal parts and workers had to be given equal time to work and sleep. With this idea in mind, Owen tried to standardize the "eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” routine.

But it took some time for this idea to become widespread.

In the beginning, less working hours were, of course, not welcomed by the business owners. However, with a series of labor strikes in 1847, the workers took a huge step toward their goal. As a result of these strikes, working hours for women and children were set at 10 hours a day, 60 hours a week. Gradually, demanding 8-hour work day became mainstream among workers.

As a result, it was decided on May 1, 1847 that the 8-hour work day schedule would be the standard.

However, this decision was taken up by the unions and neither the government nor the employers recognized it. So, during the Labor Day of 1886, when the decision was to be put into effect, 350,000 workers joined the protests to make their voices heard. One of the first companies to implement the 8-hour work day schedule was the Ford Motor Company in 1914, which also doubled the wages for their workers. Although the other big companies were confounded by this decision, the bosses, who saw how Ford’s profits increase in the coming years, realized that 8-hour day was also more profitable. In 1937, the US government enacted an order and it became legalized.

It was once again the Ford Motor Company who pioneered the five-day workweek schedule.

Ford decided on September 25, 1926, that the working days should be reduced to five and the workers should work for forty hours a week. This decision of Ford was of course not welcomed by other business owners; some even thought that this would lead workers to drink more alcohol. Ford, however, was not just thinking about its workers: less working hours would mean that the workers would have more leisure time, so they could spend more time with their families, so they would buy more cars, which would also keep the economy alive. And of course, more satisfied and happy workers would be more productive in the workplace.

Ford's plans went well, both the productivity of the workers and the sales increased like never before.

Also, qualified employees who weren’t happy with the working conditions at their factories flocked to Ford. Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford and later company manager, issued the following statements to the New York Times in March 1922:

“Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation….The Ford Company always has sought to promote [an] ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family.”

The eight-hour day movement forms part of the early history for the celebration of Labor Day and May Day in many nations and cultures.

Today, many people argue that even working for five days and forty hours a week isn’t the ideal order of things and should be changed. Recently, Sweden tried six-hour working days for two years in a bid to increase productivity and make people happier. The results are controversial. While employees felt healthier, which reduced absences, the costs seem to outweigh the benefits.

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