By Dan Ketchum
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) We owe the notion of the “8 hour workday” to Welsh industrialist and labor rights activist Robert Owen, who famously split the day into “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
When Americans think of “work,” we often think about 9-to-5 shifts, 15-minute breaks, a minimum wage of $7.25 or a 40-hour workweek.
But where did that last figure come from? Why have Americans come to accept a much more intensive 40-hour workweek than other countries? And, what would happen if the standard workweek was 30 hours?
WHO CAME UP WITH THE 40-HOUR WEEK?
The 40-hour workweek results from simple math: Eight-hour days at five days a week have long been the American standard. Of course, that figure didn’t appear out of thin air.
We owe the notion to Welsh industrialist and labor rights activist Robert Owen, who famously split the day into “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Owen’s idea didn’t catch on in his native Europe but was adopted as a slogan in the post-Civil War United States.
HISTORY OF THE 40-HOUR WORKWEEK: A NEW DEAL
By the time the Great Depression rolled around, America knew it had a problem with exploitative working hours. In fact, President Roosevelt’s administration sowed the first seeds of America’s 40-hour workweek in 1933 under the New Deal economic policy.
An early component of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which aimed to raise wages and grow jobs to stimulate the economy, it resulted in employers signing 2.3 million agreements to limit workweeks to between 35 and 40 hours and also pay a fair minimum wage.
HISTORY OF THE 40-HOUR WORKWEEK: A STANDARD IS BORN
Three years later, the Public Contracts Act of 1936 was on the table, calling for government contractors to officially adopt the eight-hours-per-day, 40-hours-per-week standard.