The truth behind the 40-hour work week

In an era of automation, the 40-hour work week is keeping the supply of labour high and suppressing wages.

The 40-hour work week was introduced a century ago in an era where most jobs were in production lines in factories. Yet much has changed since then. In the last hundred years technology has advanced in strides, drastically changing the way we work. Much of the work which would take hours before can be done in seconds with modern computer technology and machines, many tasks have been automated making every individual more productive than ever and yet the amount of time we spent working never went down, instead it seems everyone is stressed and burnt out.

These technological advancements never benefit working people. Let’s take a hypothetical situation where a time-consuming part of a job in a company with 10 employees is eliminated, for instance by digitalizing some paperwork. The employees would not be working less; they still have to put in the same number of hours. Instead, some of the employees would be laid off. The remaining employees would do the same work that was previously done by 10. And their wage would remain the same, why would their boss pay them more? Especially with the threat from the newly unemployed desperate for a job to keep a roof over their heads. And this shows, since the seventies worker productivity has been steadily rising while wages stagnated.

In the last few decades many women have joined the paid workforce whereas before they were mostly doing domestic work. How is it then that the labour force almost doubled in those years and yet we all still work 40 hours a week? If the amount of people working to sustain a population of the same size almost doubled, shouldn’t we have a 20-hour work week instead? In reality now we actually work more. As whereas before there was division of labour where the wife did domestic work (which is of course vital, yet unpaid) while the husband does paid labour, now everyone (or many times, unfortunately, women) must do both, leaving very little time for anything but work.

Thus we end up having advances which should be for the betterment of society – no financial dependence on a male partner, autonomy and freedom of choice for women; the automation of shitty jobs – having negative effects because of the class-based system we exist in.

The 40-hour work week is completely arbitrary. Why does full-time employment have to be that much and not, say, 30 or 20 hours? If we reduce working hours then the number of people needed to do the same amount of work would increase. One of the obvious benefits of this is that it would reduce the unemployment rate. Why not reduce the working hours then to a level where there’s zero unemployment? We can very easily reach a state where no person is unemployed if they don’t want to be. At that point people’s labour would be in demand and workers would actually be able to negotiate a wage close to the actual value of their work.

By maintaining the 40-hour work week the supply of labour is kept artificially high and thus wages low even as productivity increases. So paradoxically the more we work, the less we get paid. When governments or private entities advocate carrying out some ‘development’ and their biggest selling point would be that it creates jobs rather than its actual usefulness to society it shows how unnecessary the current work schedule is. There are so many bullshit jobs today showing how inefficient this system is.

If we adopt a system of changing work hours to how much we need then robots and migrants will no longer be viewed as threats. More jobs being automated? Great! We can reduce work hours further! Refugees would no longer be a class of people employers use to suppress wages. Instead, people – whether or not they were born in the vicinity of the land they live on – can work together instead of fighting each other for the crumbs of their own produce.

By reducing our working hours, not only would we be able to negotiate for better pay but we would be improving our work-life balance. Imagine not being constantly burnt out by work, having time for leisure activities, time to spend with friends and family or to work on your hobby. Quite unsurprisingly a study showed that a 4-day work week would increase worker happiness and reduce stress. There’s no reason to keep the 40-hour workweek. Let’s get rid of this outdated system. A better quality of life for the majority of people is possible, you shouldn’t have to wait until you’re 65 to achieve that.

Samuel Muscat
ADŻ Member
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 20 December 2020