The Four-Hour Workday


During the heat of the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1930s, the Industrial Workers of the World were already making cartoon handbills for what they considered the next great horizon: a four-hour day, a four-day week, and a wage people can live on. “Why not?” the IWW propaganda asked.

It’s a good question. A four-hour workday with a livable wage could solve a lot of our most nagging problems. If everyone worked fewer hours, for instance, there would be more jobs for the unemployed to fill. The economy wouldn’t be able to produce quite as much, which means it wouldn’t be able to pollute as much, either; rich countries where people work fewer hours tend to have lower carbon footprints. Less work would leave plenty of time for family and for child care, ending the agony over “work-life balance.” Gone would be the plague of overwork, which increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Nathan Schneider writes about the dying dream of the four-hour work day, which was once a big rallying cry of the Wobblies, and not to be confused with the Four-Hour Work WEEK, or the Four-Hour Body for that matter.

I have been working in very limited capacity post-baby and I keep joking with friends that doing two hours of work a day is VERY IDEAL. I recommend it to everyone and society-at-large. Too bad we need money to live and health insurance to not-die. If not though: something to think about.

Two hours is kind of rushed, though. Not much time for g-chat. What you want, or what I want, is four hours to do two hours of work. This way you have some purpose and somewhere to go, and some way of interacting with the world, but you also get to come home for lunch, then sit in the park and contemplate the void. Or you know, spend like six hours a day breastfeeding an infant and reading Twitter. EITHER WAY!

We have stopped imagining, as Keynes thought it so reasonable to do, that our grandchildren might have it easier than ourselves. We hope that they’ll have jobs, maybe even jobs that they like.

The new dream of overwork has taken hold with remarkable tenacity. Hardly anyone talks about expecting or even deserving shorter workdays anymore; the best we can hope for is the perfect job, one that also happens to be our passion. In the dogged, lonely pursuit of it, we don’t bother organizing with our co-workers. We’re made to think so badly of ourselves as to assume that if we had more free time, we’d squander it.

God that last part is so real. SO, SO REAL.

Image via Wikimedia Communism


14 Comments / Post A Comment

ThatJenn (#916)

Yesss, this.

My dream is not to retire. My dream is to make enough $$ now in my full-time job that I can drop to part-time before I’d otherwise be able to retire. I wouldn’t be able to do that in my current role, but there are things I could do that WOULD provide enough income to live on/not draw off my investments but only work part time. But I’ve gotta make sure that the major expenses are covered and I feel comfortable about *eventual* retirement, when I can no longer work at all, first.

@ThatJenn Yes! As long as I am mentally, physically able, I’d love to keep working (or volunteering) from like, 9-2 at least a couple days a week.

ThatJenn (#916)

@polka dots vs stripes Oh, yeah, this! I spoke with a woman at one of our state parks who has been basically traveling the country as a volunteer in parks, getting free housing or RV hookups in exchange for a few hours of work per week (anywhere from 5 to 30, depending on the assignment). Pair that with increasing ability to connect to the internet from anywhere and my having expertise to do some work that’s easy to do part-time and from afar (grant writing), and I totally have my first phase of semi-retirement planned.

MrDean (#6,289)

@ThatJenn That’s what a lawyer I used to work for did for his “retirement.” He would work 15-40 hours a week on legacy clients that really valued the brand name, sometimes in the office but usually from a vacation home. He’d dial up his workload when he was bored and dial it back when he wanted to focus on a particular vacation. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the ideal. Freedom in your schedule, but you still have something productive to do.

I get so much more work done in shorter periods of time. There are very few people in the world who TRULY have 40 hours worth of work to do, and making us/me sit here for 8 hours a day just encourages me to keep gchatting. My most productive intern periods were always the shorter, 2-4 hour shifts because I knew I had a limited amount of time To Get Stuff Done.

I also still maintain that a siesta type of period from 11-2 would benefit everyone’s productivity. Work 7-11 or 8-11, run errands, exercise, take a nap, then work again from 2-5 or 2-6 or something. It’d be great.

inthepost (#7,254)

@polka dots vs stripes THIS. Decent-sized but still small packets of time!

Also can we talk about all those studies that say people can really only do about 4-5 hours of good desk work each day, regardless of how long they are at the office? I feel like that’s also pretty relevant to this conversation. I will go look for a citation, unless someone else remembers what I’m talking about.

jalmondale (#6,721)

IME, having done both, I’d much rather have a 60-hour/wk job I really love, than a 30-hour/wk job that’s kinda boring. Maybe 16 hours/wk would be low enough that I’d be ok with it? For me personally, though, spending a large chunk of waking hours (a) in one location, so no long travelling/projects, and (b) working on something that I can’t really get into, because I’m only working on it for a few hours each day, is actually pretty not-fun. Maybe the point is that most jobs aren’t interesting anyway, so at least we could try to do less of them? That’s a pretty depressing rallying cry, though, I can see why it hasn’t caught on.

Allison (#4,509)

@jalmondale I spend too much time at work (working max 45 hours a week) to get everything else in my life handled the way I like, so even if I loved loved my job and was fully engaged, I would run screaming into the ocean if I had to work 60 hours a week.

PicNic (#3,760)

So my last job was an 8 hour work day, but really 8.5 because we had an unpaid 30 minute lunch break. My new job is a 7 hour work day, but really 8 hours because we have an hour long unpaid lunch break. At both jobs I end up working through lunch 80% of the time because I typically bring my lunch to save money, so there’s no Other Place to go. I could eat it in the cafeteria – which is loud and packed and uncomfortable. I could eat outside – but it’s either too hot or too cold or too humid or too raining. The only time it’s worth taking a lunch break is if a few of us Go Out to lunch, which entails wait service, a tip, and usually comes out to $15. So I just work.

I do think a 4 day work week, 6 hour days, would be ideal. or a 5 day work week,4 hour days. or to be independently wealthy so I can spend my days going to yoga and laying on the couch eating fancy cheese and read every book ever written until I have all the wisdom like The Giver (just re-read) and people come and bring me exotic treats and beg for my advice on how to handle their petty little overworked brain problems and my answer will always be something vague and zen about “Being Still” or “Harvest under a full moon”

VelourFog (#5,077)

@PicNic bring a book to read while you eat your lunch. Unless you have a legit crunch, try to take a break. Put in earbuds and listen to music or a podcast. Get up and walk around your office building. I’m a determined lunch packer, but I try to get at least half my lunch break every day.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

I would love a four-hour or six-hour workday. And yes, the bit about “we hope our grandchildren will have jobs, maybe even jobs that they like” is both realistic and depressing.

I say constantly that part-time is the dream. When I was home with my second baby, I worked a bit after 5 weeks of leave. He is such a sweet easy baby that I actually wanted something real to do with my time and of course I needed the money with the giant medical bills & triple daycare bill the first month I would be back at work. I worked about 13 hours a week. It was perfect. I had time with my kids. I did mountains of laundry. I went out to lunch with the “Stay at Home Moms.” It was great, but I do really like my job, and I really love childcare, and going out to lunch with the “Moms who work” or the “Single co-workers with different problems.”

And yes, that last part feels really real!

nutmeg (#1,383)

The 4 hour work day is amazing; most of my shifts lately have been 4-6 hours (and all closing shifts, so I get to nap almost every day- ALSO AMAZING). Unfortunately there are silly things like food and rent I need to pay, and I get paid hourly, so that’s the drawback. I’m basically just trying to spend as little of my savings as possible until I get my student loan refund check in September (and obsessively checking my school’s site to make sure they aren’t going to take away any of my glorious $20,000 grant) and enjoying the free time while I still have some.

tussock (#1,296)

During the fight for the eight-hour workday (and I think the ten-hour day before that?) one of the arguments was what the author says above: there will be more jobs to go around. Interestingly this turned out mostly not to be the case. It turns out people are a *lot* more productive on a shorter workday than a longer one. Like Meaghan says, no time for gchat! Plus, you’re not dead tired, etc.

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