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Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week? Can We Noodle on That?

In the third debate, the President’s history lesson –“we don’t use bayonets and horses”– prompted big buzz, smiles and controversy. But, although billed as a last resort, bayonets still do play a part in military arms, just not a significant one.

Another idea – a killer idea – also steeped in history moves toward a possible true comeback. This idea aims to pack a significant wallop for everyone who works and is complete with smiles, controversy and –  smart thinking.

For years the 40-hour work week was “the design” for the working life. Both of my parents – my mother as a salaried buyer of defense parts for the government and dad as an hourly General Motors factory worker – punched time clocks to keep track of those 40 hours.

And with that 40-hour work week, American companies achieved productivity and profits while workers had work-free weekends and evenings.

The 40-hour work week idea needs more supporters to become a short-week-work  movement with the power of a Tea Party. But signs of life  – and strong advocates who demand attention and get it – are creating meaningful dialogue.

In an excellent essay, Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity, Sara Robinson, a trained social futurist, lays out decades of research backing the 40-hour work week wisdom and how it applies to both manual laborers and knowledge workers.

With 150 years of research, Robinson points out that every hour of work beyond 40 actually makes you “less effective and productive over both the short and long haul.” She also argues that for every worker working more than a 50-hour work week every week there’s one American who should have a full time job and doesn’t.”   (Pack that away for your next guilt trip.)

While most of us know we work “a lot,” just how many hours do we work? Americans are working approximately 11 more hours per week now than they did in the 1970’s.  Following a summary of Robinson’s essay in March, the popular blog LifeHacker asked readers to respond to an informal poll on the number of hours in their work week.   With over 15,000 responders, 58% indicated they worked between 41 and 60 hours a week; 14% reported a 60-80 hour work week. (See Full Poll results at end of my post.)

While not scientific, that’s a lot of self-reported worker-bee hours. Are they in pain? Do their wings ache? I have friends who indignantly tell me they wish people would stop commenting on the fact that they have no life other than work.  “I l-o-v-e my work,” they purr.

Digest Robinson’s well-documented negative outcomes of overwork (to our bodies, families, and performance), and see if you wonder, like me: Why would people choose any of those outcomes? The answers differ widely and include necessity, ego, Puritan upbringing and it’s-just-the-American-way.

Back to clocking out at 5pm every day. Could it work? I’m not sure. In my personal and professional experience coaching leaders, I know that in order to build successful careers there are times you just have to give up life. For my daughter and business partner, Elizabeth, and me to meet a publisher’s date for a book we wrote, we worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week for 2.5 months (we had one day off for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas).  If we had worked a 40-hour week, the project would have taken over 6 months – 4 months longer.  (If you’re thinking about dissing us as over-worked achiever types, note that we had just returned from a 6-month sabbatical.)

While a return to the 40-hour work week may be radical, take heed. The popularity of Sara Robinson’s essay (12k reader “likes”), the number of posts it prompted and the 954 comments resulting from The New York Times Opinion piece in June 2012, The Busy Trap, signal frustrated people with out-of-control lifestyles who need a better, smarter way to live and work.

What could be the outcome of  a short-work-week movement?  50 hours? 55 hours? How about “fewer” than 40 hours? In February 2012, The Economic Foundation, a British think tank proposed a  “21-hour work week.” Noodle on that and keep your ears open.  You’re going to hear more about this.

Results of Working Hours Poll, Lifehacker March 19, 2012

How Many Hours Do You Work Per Week? (Poll Closed)

Less than 20 2.79% (442 votes)

20-30 3.6% (571 votes)

31-40 21.53% (3,416 votes)

41-50 37.72% (5,986 votes)

51-60 20.34% (3,228 votes)

61-70 7.83% (1,242 votes)

71-80 6.19% (983 votes)

Total Votes: 15,868

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