Author: Lizzie Wade /WIRED
What was once a socialist dream has become every knowledge worker’s nightmare. It’s time to unmake the modern myth of productivity.
THE EIGHT-HOUR WORKDAY started its life as a socialist dream. The Welsh textile mill owner and social reformer Robert Owen is credited as the first person to articulate it, by calling for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest” for workers in the early 19th century. This was much better than the 12- or 14-hour days factory workers, including children, were expected to put in at the time. Over the next 100 years or so, labor unions in the US pushed for and won adoption of the eight-hour standard in various industries. Henry Ford brought the idea further into the mainstream in 1926 by mandating a five-day, 40-hour workweek in his company’s factories. In 1940, Congress officially set the American workweek at 40 hours.
There’s just one problem in the 21st century: It’s all but impossible to actually work for eight hours a day in the jobs so many of us now have. Like most people writing hot takes and think pieces about productivity, I’m focusing on knowledge workers here—those of us who work at desks, mostly in front of computers, in offices or from home. Especially those of us who spend those hours making things, like writers, coders, and graphic designers. (Honestly, I think eight hours a day is too long to work in a factory, a restaurant, a call center, or a store too, and we should rethink and re-legislate this standard in all industries.)