40 Hour Workweeks Are Bullshit

Tyler Kirkpatrick
5 min readNov 20, 2021
Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

We are told the 40-hour workweek gives us more time to rest and partake in leisure. But after spending about a decade in the cushiony office world, not all those hours are productive. Not even close.

Is the 40-hour workweek an oppressive system designed to keep the masses from being able to climb the corporate ladder? Or is it a blessing that we’ve all taken for granted?

What I Found

In the 1800s, many Americans worked over 70 hours per week, but we can only rely on estimates. Most Americans worked in agriculture before the last decades of the nineteenth century, and many of them were self-employed, leaving no incentive to track hours. The seasonality of agricultural labor meant more “free time” in winter months and intense “dawn-till-dusk” days during harvest and planting seasons.

But as more laborers moved into industrialized cities in the late 1800s, Margo estimated that annual hours of work rose by ten percent per laborer over the nineteenth century.

In 1890, “The average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was a whopping 100 hours.” However, a few reports have been found citing an average of 60 hours workweeks during the same period. Since these reports are merely small samples that just happened to be the few relevant records that survived, it is generally believed that the actual length of the average American workweek was closer to 100 hours.

On September 25, 1926, the Ford motor company adopted a five-day, forty-hour workweek. Over the decades prior, several government employees enjoyed the same privileges, including railroad workers.

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, limiting the workweek to 44 hours, and reduced it to 40 hours just two years later.

Since then, 40 hours has pretty much been the standard for Americans. Over in Europe, this number continues to reduce each year while their vacation time stays abnormally high. For example, in many European countries, employees are guaranteed a minimum of 38 days paid vacation days annually. Americans don’t have any such guarantee.

What I’ve Observed

There is a “toxic work culture” that encourages employees to go “above and beyond the…

Tyler Kirkpatrick

I write about politics, money, and my crippling video game addiction. Email: tkirkpatrick@smu.edu