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The work week
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 1
Scan articles about modern working practices, and you’ll quickly come across the assertion that we’re working harder than ever before. Why, ask modern observers of burnout and critics of our faltering wellbeing, are we still shackled to 40+ hours at a desk, clocking in doggedly, albeit digitally, each day, when many jobs don’t require it?
Well here’s a thing: We are definitely not working more hours than ever before. Believe it or not, the 40-hour workweek was a triumph of social campaigning that reined in the excesses of the industrial revolution. We’ve just forgotten.
Which isn’t to say we’re working the right amount. Advocates of the 4-day workweek—not to mention those who think we can whittle it down to just four hours—make a convincing case that we should use productivity, not time, as our guide, particularly in light of the work-life collision brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
And if we need to reassess working time, what about leisure time? After all, as scholar and historian Theodore Zeldin writes in An Intimate History of Humanity, the weekend itself is “a poisoned gift from the English to humanity.”
Well, this particular Weekly Obsession author is English, and she’d like to say, “You’re welcome, world.”
Let’s get to work.
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 2
3,105 to 3,588: Average working hours per year for a British industrial worker in 1840, based on a 69-hour week.
1,538: Average working hours per year in the UK in 2018, according to the OECD.
2,148: Average working hours in Mexico in 2018, the highest in the OECD.
52 Sundays, 90 rest days, and 38 holiday feast days: Days off reportedly guaranteed to peasants in Medieval France
74%: Men who devoted less than an hour a day to housework during the Covid-19 crisis, according to a recent Italian study.
28%: Women who devoted less than an hour a day to housework, in the same study.
500 million: Downloads of The Tim Ferriss Show, a podcast by the author of The 4 Hour Workweek.
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 3
Because records of working hours didn’t exist until fairly recently, we have to estimate how much people used to work using proxies, explains Judy Z. Stephenson, an academic who specializes in the economics of the built environment at University College, London. One such proxy is to calculate the cost of a basket of goods at a given time in the past, compare it to wage records, and work out how much an average person would have needed to work to live.
Stephenson sought another way of reconstructing their working weeks and years, using detailed records of the building of St Paul’s Cathedral in the early 1700s.
She concludes that the builders who worked on the cathedral did so in a fairly ad hoc way. Though it was a big, long project, they were not employees as we imagine it. Some probably worked just as much as they wanted, perhaps a few days a month. Others took work when they could get it, and those with more long-standing relationships with the overseers worked more.
This picture fits with a description of artisans in Birmingham, UK, in the pre-industrial 18th Century, described by Theodore Zeldin: They started work at three or four in the morning, but then rested at noon and spent several hours sleeping, eating, drinking, and playing games. They then worked again into the evening. “They worked hardest on Friday, handed their work in on Saturday, but took off Monday as well as Sunday, and often Tuesday too, and sometimes Wednesday.” In short, they worked as and when they wanted to, basing their work time on what they needed to earn.
One key to how we feel about work is not how many hours we put in, but to the extent to which we have autonomy over our time. As one recent study discovered, lacking a sense of control is detrimental to our happiness, and our health. The pandemic has thrown control out the window, making mental health a more pertinent issue than ever (✦).
In modern times, we’re seeing a resurgence of the argument that few people need to work 40 set hours in one place to get things done, with arguments abounding for greater flexibility and shorter work weeks. The pandemic has driven that agenda forward. According to a recent Geyser survey, 56% of Americans now want to work from home some of the time.
Of course for many across the globe, working just 40 hours a week sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 4
“Productivity stayed the same…but of course that meant that our staff were being 20% more productive on the days that they were working. But it was the other scores that absolutely blew us away. Engagement scores went up 30-40%, to the highest level the researchers had ever seen in New Zealand.”
—Andrew Barnes, author of The 4 Day Work Week and founder of Perpetual Guardian, on his company’s trial of a four day work week.
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 7
Mondays haven’t always been days to dread, as most workers in the West took Sunday to observe—with varying degrees of devoutness—a sabbath. As the idea was that you’d show up when you liked to do the work you needed to do to get by, it was fairly standard to stay home on Monday.
The industrial revolution changed the as-needed aspect of work, with factories and tireless machines creating an incentive for owners to get workers to keep regular (and long) hours. Irregularity worked poorly for factory bosses, who offered a more structured, but ultimately more restrictive, pattern. Thus, as a necessary cap to the now standard work week, the Saturday-Sunday weekend was born (though it would take another century to fully catch on).
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 8
For good or ill, there is an entire industry devoted to quickly explaining the concepts of self-help books—particularly ones on productivity—so that you don’t have to spend the time reading them and can instead… be more productive. This explainer boils down some of Tim Ferriss’s bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek with helpful caveats. It also says the book is well worth a read, too.
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 9
Of course, the very notion of “the work week” suggests that we’re only working when we’re at work. Anyone with a farm, kids, a passion project, a home to clean, volunteering duties, or caring responsibilities—to name a few examples—will know this isn’t true. Since most of the world devoted itself to capitalism, paid work has been an ever-greater measure of success: “The more we’re paid the more we’ve succeeded at life,” goes the thinking, with an easy sideways slide into, “The more we work the better we are.” This is a fairly modern way of thinking. In How to be Free, English author and idleness advocate Tom Hodgkinson points out that the rich, historically, spent their time in leisure, art, thought, and conversation, while only people who really had to did any work.
Paid work continues to garner much more respect than unpaid labor, and unpaid labor falls disproportionately on certain segments of society. People with less education have to work more to earn the same amount as the better-educated. Women do a vast share more of unpaid domestic work and childcare than men, a phenomenon that has only increased with the pandemic. Poorer people also have to work harder simply to live, whether that’s walking to a shop to top up their electricity because they’ve been cut off from payment by direct debit, or carrying the mental and emotional burden of being part of an underprivileged minority (who are also more likely to be poor).
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Quartz Obsession — The work week — Card 11
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