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Rethinking the 9-5: A Historical Perspective

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Let's go back in time for a moment...

It's the 1930s, and you've been invited to a dinner party with the famed Bloomsbury group in London. You're sitting across from the economist John Maynard Keynes, who just published a paper entitled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. He's adamantly telling you that in 100 years, people were working 15 hours per week.

He then rattles on further:

We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while.

You politely nod so as not to be rude to your dinner party companion, and do not let on the truth: we still work a lot in 2022. But then you leave with a question: What have working hours been like across time?

According to Juliet Schor, author of the book, The Overworked American:

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.

Based on her research, pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today's workers. Here's the rundown on annual hours across the centuries:

  • 13th century - Adult male peasant, U.K.: 1620 hours

  • 14th century - Casual laborer, U.K.: 1440 hours

  • Middle ages - English worker: 2309 hours

  • 1400-1600- Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.: 1980 hours

  • 1840 - Average worker, U.K.: 3105-3588 hours

  • 1850 - Average worker, U.S.: 3150-3650 hours

  • 1987 - Average worker, U.S.: 1949 hours

  • 1988 - Manufacturing workers, U.K.: 1856 hours

In short, pre-capitalist working hours were shorter, and since then, working hours have matched the technological revolution at hand.

During the agricultural revolution, people worked according to sun and weather patterns. With the advent of electricity, the constraints of daylight diminished, and work became structured around factory schedules and demands for progress. Later, the third and fourth industrial revolutions brought computing and digitalization into the workplace—which allows us to work from anywhere, and everywhere.

Why then do we still design work around pre-internet constraints?

The 9-to-5 was designed for a time when being physically together was required to get the work done. The 5 day work week was created by Henry Ford in 1926 after realizing working more yielded only a small increase in productivity.

It's time for our generation to leave a stamp on the work week, and to start designing it around the technology revolutions present today.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Why do you work the hours that you work?

  2. If you could re-design your work schedule, how would it look?

  3. How do you leverage technology at work?


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