Is the ‘nine-to-five’ working week patriarchal and outdated?
In 1856, a group of stonemasons in Melbourne, Australia laid down their tools and marched up to the Victorian Parliament. They wanted to deliver a decisive message to the legislature: the work day should be limited to a maximum of eight hours per day.
The stonemasons’ action was part of a wider movement known as the ‘Eight Hours League’. This was based on an idea proposed a few decades earlier by socialist pioneer Robert Owen. A fair working week according to Owen was one that consisted of eight hours work, eight hours recreation, and eight hours sleep. The neat symmetry behind Owen’s idea meant that the ‘888’ logo became something of an icon for Australian labour unions.
The Eight Hours League was a significant breakthrough in the field of labour relations. Up until that point, most workers across the globe endured a life of endless drudgery. There was nothing unusual in fourteen hour work days or six day work weeks or horrendous and lethal working conditions. Child labour was also commonplace. Women were restricted to certain types of work only, such as nursing, domestic cleaning and child rearing.
Just to put the year of 1856 in further context, my home state of Queensland did not officially exist at that time. As another socialist pioneer – Karl Marx – scribbled away in the British Library, Charles Darwin pondered his radical new theory ‘on the origin of species’. The Duke of Wellington, the leader of the allied forces at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), had died four years previously, his hefty funeral procession having recently graced the streets of London.
You hardly need me to tell you that the world of work has changed beyond recognition since 1856. Child labour is no more, at least in the developed world. Women now ‘enjoy’ a more prominent role in the workplace. Agricultural work has largely been superseded by the ‘tertiary sector’, the provision of intangible goods and services. Technology dominates the scene as workers spend entire days hunched up in front of screens. Employment legislation such as the minimum wage promises a basic level of protection from exploitation, although this is counter-balanced by the growing effect of the ‘gig economy’.
And yet, despite all these enormous advances and despite the fact that the tech bulldozer continues to plough down everything in its path, we stubbornly cling to our precious eight-hour day, seeing it as some form of eleventh commandment. Why is it that we clamber to accept other forms of innovation in the workplace – and the world in general – yet we give such scant regard to humanity’s most precious resource? Time.
A. The Great Forty Hour Illusion
Yes, yes, I know, I can already hear the many cries of the discontent. You ONLY work eight hours a day? How I’d love to work just 40 hours in a week!
I understand and share your pain. Anyone subjected to ridiculous workloads soon realises that it’s a completely unsustainable – not to mention impoverished – way to live. It might be a cliché, but has any person at death’s door ever wished they spent more time in the office?
The exact length of the working week varies wildly, according to the industry, the role, and the individual worker. If you’re lucky, your official working week will be less than 40 hours. My first job – as a junior programmer working for the Queensland Government – stipulated a work week of 36.25 hours. In France, the 35 hour week is the legal standard.
Most workers will however relate more with the work week that goes in the opposite direction. The most obvious way to do this is through ‘overtime’. Working additional hours may result in some tangible benefit for the employees, but often it results in nothing at all. Employees receive no remuneration or even recognition for their effort.
The standard work week often turns out to be even longer than normal hours plus overtime. Commuting forms a major part of most people’s working day. You are considered lucky if you have a commute of half an hour or less, or a commute that allows you to sit quietly and regain your sanity. For many people, an hour-long commute through congested traffic is quite normal. And that’s one hour each way, to and from the workplace.
But we’re still not done. On top of commuting, we also need to factor in all the additional chores you must do to prepare for the work week: washing work clothes, ironing, arranging child care, and making packed lunches. And then there’s the extra work-related duties performed from home, such as checking and replying to emails. We could even factor in having to spend half a weekend catching up on all the personal admin you couldn’t do during the week. Never mind eight hours of recreation per day; you can thank your lucky stars to get eight hours of recreation per week.
in many respects then, the eight-hour day is already a grotesque fiction, not representing at all the amount of time people truly dedicate to their jobs. Perhaps we should replace ‘888’ with the Chinese ‘996’, working nine am to nine pm, six days a week.
As I said though, we’re going to fudge the truth a little bit here. For the purposes of using a convenient, rounded figure, ‘8 hours per day’ or ’40 hours per week’ will do the job fine. While I will continue to use this for the remainder of the post, approach these numbers as if I’d added a winking emoticon after them, emphasising the shared joke they represent. 😉
B. What’s Wrong with Forty Hours Then?
Back in the early 19thcentury – when Robert Owen came up with his ‘888’ idea – each working household typically had the one breadwinner only: the ‘man’. The ‘woman’ (or women, if you include daughters and extended family) were solely responsible for domestic duties and making sure that the man was properly clothed and fed. Once the man had done his eight hours of work, he could welcome eight hours of recreation, safe in the knowledge that he didn’t have to carry out any additional duties. Meanwhile the women continued to toil, performing far in excess of eight hours work. ‘888’ never applied to her.
The world has moved on from such ‘quaint’ traditions. In fact, it’s difficult these days to work out exactly what constitutes a ‘normal’ household. Men and women in the same household typically work eight hour days. In theory, this means they should equally contribute to household duties, but this rarely happens in practice. (Although this is beyond the scope of our current topic, I sigh when people describe housework as ‘women’s work’. What is so inherently feminine about cooking, cleaning and ironing clothes?).
The main problem with the 40-hour week is its rigid, one-size-fits-all mentality. It gives you a stark choice: full-time work or no work at all. Although the concept of ‘part time work’ is understood by most people, the thought of working less than the culturally accepted norm is still frowned upon in many industries. Having friends who work part-time, I’m aware of the frustrations faced by the part-time employee. You are not seen as ‘one of the team’ and are often given the most monotonous and humdrum tasks. Opportunities for promotion are limited. You often find yourself stuck in the same role for year after year.
The forty-hour week also cares little about the individual. It assumes that everyone is happy at the thought of trooping into work at the same time, largely sitting in one spot for the next eight hours, and then leaving again at the same time, along with a million other people. How many genuinely creative and innovative people would opt to follow such a regime?
In my case, my preferred approach is to work in short, sharp bursts of activity, of no more than sixty to ninety minutes per session. I then aim to have a decent break away from the PC before returning refreshed for another burst. This allows me to enter a state of ‘flow’, concentrating solely on the single task at hand. Flow is almost impossible to achieve in an office-based environment fixated with clocking in and clocking out at pre-arranged times. There are just too many distractions and interruptions. I also loathe the idea of ‘multi-tasking’.
C. Shit-faced Suits
So what is it about ‘nine-to-five’ that continues to grip the working world? Who is to blame for this archaic concept still proving to be the driving force of the modern workplace?
In my own experience, the ‘work till you drop’ mentality thrives in a culture of machoism and ‘dog eat dog’. In such a setting, a loyal and dependable worker is one seen as fiercely and unquestionably dedicated to the job. Anyone who contemplates leaving at 5pm or having an afternoon off is a ‘skiver’, someone who only lets the team down with their lack of gung-ho enthusiasm. Women, in their efforts to be seen as just ‘one of the boys’ go along with this charade, presumably under the impression that this is the only way to achieve equality. (Sadly on this point, they may be right.)
This is utter bully-boy tosh, driven by that odious ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic. This rewards you for your forty hours (remember the 😉 ) by saying you are perfectly entitled – nay, encouraged – to go out and get shit-faced every Friday night. While the work industry will never condone this sort of weekly drunken orgy, they secretly rub their hands in glee at what it produces: a league of docile, drugged-up people who are too short-sighted and too brain-dead to give much thought to alternative ways of living.
The irony is that ‘hard work’ often means nothing of the sort. It isn’t about productivity but presence, the idea of just ‘being there’ even if you’re contributing very little. A person sitting for ten hours doing nothing is viewed more favourably than someone who’s there for half the time but produces twice the output. It would be comical if it wasn’t so serious. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had plenty of raw material to choose from when wanting to convey life in ‘The Office’.
On the subject of long hours, industry could play a more decisive role by encouraging people to leave on time. Managers should lead the way, stepping out of the office as early as possible (and working from home if they really absolutely must).
D. Escaping the Yoke
Efforts to escape the 40-hour week have produced mixed results, which only goes to show how ingrained the idea of full-time work is as part of the human psyche.
In Sweden, a number of trials have attempted to reduce the normal working day from eight hours to six hours. While many people loved the change – and hated the thought of going back to normal hours after the trial had run – others weren’t so positive. These employees felt their actual workload hadn’t changed. They were still asked to perform eight hours of work in a shorter timeframe, which only made them feel more stressed.
A Swiss friend of mine – a secondary school teacher – described a novel approach at her workplace. Prior to a new term, each teacher gets to nominate their desired workload for that term. This can be anything from one day a week to five days a week. Pay and other benefits are adjusted accordingly.
The beauty of this innovative system is that it offers the time flexibility that most jobs lack, without having to resort to the meagre offerings of the gig economy. Your hourly rate of pay does not change regardless of the hours you choose. If you decide you want to knuckle down for a year and save some money, then choose to work all five days. If however, you want to ease your workload for a little while, then drop back to three days. Nobody judges you on your choice and nobody is pressuring you to work more. Everyone appreciates having a source of employment that takes changing circumstances into account.
Although many of the city boys would sneer at such a concept, I have no problem with someone deciding to work a three day week and then allocating the rest of their time to raising a family or other personal projects. It’s possible that some of the personal projects could eventually evolve into an alternative source of income. A financial adviser always recommends that you diversify your investment portfolio. Why doesn’t the same reasoning apply for the human portfolio?
As for our pioneering stonemasons of 1856, you can find a monument in the wonderfully named ‘8 Hour Reserve’, located in Melbourne on the corner of Victoria St and Russell St.
So when can we look forward to seeing a ‘4 Day Reserve’ somewhere in the world?
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