The 9-to-5 workday isn’t just hated—it’s obsolete

We invented the 9-to-5, and we could change it.
We invented the 9-to-5, and we could change it.
Image: REUTERS/Albert Gea
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Does anybody like the modern work day? Getting out of bed and to the office by eight in the morning. Staying until five. Five days a week. With two rest days. Then back at it again. Every week.

Do we really like that?

Because we sure do complain about it a lot. It’s embedded in the language we use around an office and when talking about offices. We see it stamped on oversized coffee mugs and repeated endlessly in movies and TV shows. Everybody hates Mondays. Wednesday Hump Day. TGIF. And what about staying in the office for eight or nine hours straight? Given that the “Afternoon Slump” is a thing, I’d say there are people who find it challenging.

Most Americans report that they’re generally satisfied with their jobs, and yet—at least based on our language—we hate going to work. Could it be that we see the schedule as so immutable that we don’t even consider it when assessing our  job satisfaction?

Thankfully, the modern work day is not immutable, it’s simply the standard most people living know. And while it may have served well in years past, that’s not a compelling reason to keep it around. Think of it like landlines, or black and white televisions, or lead-based fuel.

The birth of the modern workday

The modern workday is an invention of nineteenth century socialism. Yes, you read that right. If you grew up, as I did, in the suburbs of Detroit, you might have believed that Henry Ford invented the 9-to-5 workday, but he didn’t. True, he was influential in its mass acceptance, but the real inventors and champions of the 8-hour workday were the American labor unions of the 1800s.

Back then, there was no limit to the hours that employers could demand of their employees, and factory workers especially could be looking at over 100 hours each week. This included children (it wouldn’t be until the early 20th century when child labor laws started getting on the books).

Sixty years and several riots later, as Congress was starting to mandate 8-hour work days for certain sectors, the Ford Motor Company instituted a mandatory 5-day workweek with 8-hour work days. Twelve years later, Congress finally caught up with the times, ratifying the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This first stab at a sweeping, federal-level labor law banned the hiring of children under sixteen, set the workweek at 44 hours per week, and mandated a minimum wage of $0.25/hour. It also was seen as so revolutionary that the Supreme Court almost blasted it right back to FDR’s desk. Evidently, the bill’s harshest opponents were concerned that eliminating child labor, banning extreme working hours, and creating a minimum wage would destroy America’s industrial competitiveness.

However, like the man who signed it, the bill endured a lot longer than anyone expected, and in 1940, it was even made stricter by Congress. The workweek was set at 40 hours per week, which may have had something to do with the fact that 44 doesn’t divide easily by 5.

The official workweek has been 40 hours ever since, and for many years, it worked very well.

How work has changed since 1940

Nearly eighty years after the workweek was signed into law, many things have changed. One of the biggest is the gender makeup of the corporate landscape. There are far more working moms today than there were in 1940. Families with young children make up two-fifths of all American families, and 61.1% of those are families where both parents are employed. It’s no longer the case that dads go off to work while moms stay home with the kids. Often both parents are pursuing careers.

Technology, meanwhile, makes it easier to do work anywhere. Two thirds of American adults own smartphones and over 70% have either a desktop computer or laptop at home. It’s no longer completely necessary to be in the office at all times in order to be productive, and 43% of workers say they work from home at least sometimes.

It’s also no longer quite so necessary for everyone to be “on shift” all at the same time. While the number of manufacturing jobs in the US was on the rise in 1940, it has declined significantly since the 1980s. Trends like cloud computing also make it possible for people in traditional office jobs to work efficiently without sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in an office.

So why do we still accept the 9-to-5?

First of all, it’s now 8-to-5, though that can depend on where you live. The short answer to why we still accept it, is because we’re socialized to. We’ve become so used to seeing people hating Mondays, living for Fridays, and despising early mornings that it has all become normal. We expect a standard work schedule to be a hassle, and so when it is, we think nothing of it.

And while there may be plenty to dislike about the 8-to-5 workday, it would be hard to argue it’s all bad.

The original 8-hour work day was proposed to create a balance of sorts. In a day of 24 hours, the idea was that a balanced life should have eight hours to sleep, eight hours to work, and eight hours for recreation. There’s definitely something to be said for having a set time to work and a set time to stop working and do something else. While technology offers us all greater freedom from our desks, it also shackles us more tightly to our jobs. With so much work now being email-based, and so many companies now using cloud computing instead of traditional servers, it’s harder than ever to actually “leave the office.”

Since technology is here to stay, it will fall to managers and employees to work out workplace boundaries and expectations regarding when work should begin and end.

There are many ways to divide 40 hours. One method is known as the 5/4/9 compressed schedule. Over a period of two weeks, employees work eight 9-hour days, and one 8-hour day. This could manifest as working Monday through Thursday at nine hours, then working a shortened day the first Friday and taking the second Friday off. Another is the 4/10 schedule, wherein employees work four 10-hour work days, resulting in a three day weekend every week.

Nurses and other healthcare providers are no strangers to strange schedules, with many a typical workweek consisting of three twelve hour shifts, leading the other four days open and free. But working twelve hours straight, admittedly, isn’t for everyone.

And in the end, that’s what this whole thing comes down to: there is no single schedule that is right for everyone. But thanks to advances in technology, telecommuting, and automation, it’s easier than ever for managers and companies to look at their employees as individuals and work out systems that make sense for their unique circumstances. It’s the way of the future, and it’s much easier to change than one might think.