Rethinking the 9-5: A historical perspective

Today, I woke up with a question:

What were working hours like before the Industrial Revolution?

Several google searches later, I stumbled upon Juliet Schor, a Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of the book, The Overworked American, who has spent part of her career answering the same question.

It's assumed that capitalism reduces human toil, and that the 40-hour work week was a massive improvement from the work hours of our ancestors, often clocking in at 70-80 hours a week of hard labor. But what if we've taken a short view of history?

According to Juliet:

These images are backward projections of modern work patterns. And they are false. Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that working hours in the mid-nineteenth century constitute the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.

Pre and Post-Capitalist work looked different. The medieval workday was less than eight hours, and a half-day was considered a "full day of work." The medieval workday was full of holidays and festivals, Researchers estimate this time-off accumulated to 1/3 of the year, and the English were clocking more proverbial hours than neighboring countries.

According to Oxford Professor James E. Thorold Rogers, the eight-hour movements of the late nineteenth century were "simply striving to recover what his ancestor worked by four or five centuries ago."

Each generation molds its working patterns to the technological movement at hand.

The agricultural revolution worked according to the sun and weather patterns. The first and second industrial revolutions' work was structured according to factory schedules and the demand for infrastructure, like waterways, railroads, and telegraph networks. With electricity, the constraints of the sun diminished and the desire for progress (and power) grew.

The second industrial revolution culminated in the advent of the automobile and highways. Henry Ford popularized the 40-hour work week, after "he discovered through his research that working more yielded only a small increase in productivity that lasted a short period of time."

During this time, work shifted away from farms and factories, due to automation, and into office, as work became more administrative. The third and fourth industrial revolutions brought the computing, digital communication, and automation advances that we experience today.

The changes beg the question: why are we still orchestrating our weeks to constraints to a different industrial revolution?

Knowledge workers no longer need to commute to a co-located destination every day. The 9-5 was designed for a time when being physically required to get the work done. Now, we can shape our work lives to a different pattern, whether that be our own biological rhythms, the requirements of our personal lives, or work patterns that mirror the products we produce.

For example, agile development is a project management process that is an iterative process with continue releases. Instead of thinking about work in quarters or annual plans, often dictated by the stock market, agile developers think of it in weeks. Companies, like Basecamp, structures its working hours and teams around the sprints, not by a handed-down framework, like the 9-5. In fact, their working style mirrors. their software product.

So, I leave you with this...

I don't think we're going to completely erase the 9-5. Other institutions, like schools and dentistries, still work on those hours,. As a society, we need to not only work on schedules that make sense for us as individual and employees of larger companies, but also within broader society. That being said, there's wiggle room between where we are today and what is possible.

How might you re-think the 9-5 this week? What would it look like if you designed your workweek around a different constraint than a behavioral norm, passed down from before the internet?