The 8-hour workday is as old as wage labor itself -- which is the type of labor we all do (paychecks, hours, salaries or hourly rates, time off, weekends, etc.) -- which is to say it's less than 200 years old.
Prior to the industrial revolution, the vast majority of people were subsistence farmers, with families growing their own food and selling their extra harvest for a small profit (or giving the extra to their landlord). Not until the mass prevalence of factory production did the concept of a "workday" as we know it become the industry standard. Conflict between the farmers and the growing "labor" population was arguable the major political divide in the beginning of American politics, beginning with the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and continuing through to today. Our present ideological divide between advocates for "big government" and "small government" is in many ways just the modern iteration of the conflict between the farmers and the laborers in the early 19th century.
The 8-hour workday was a political cause before it became the standard. Before there was any awareness about the need to set labor laws, 10-16 hour workdays, 6 days a week, were regular. Child labor was widespread.
In 1817, a Welsh socialist named Robert Owen was the first to use the famous phrase: "eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest." Owen, and other political movements from laborers to socialists to Marxists to utopians, advocated for this benchmark for upwards of 100 years. Though there are no laws limiting the workday to 8-hours, 5-days a week in the US, it has become an assumption of the zeitgeist.
Today is very different from 1817. We are not essentially machine parts working in factories anymore (these sorts of jobs have been and will continue to become fully automated). Our work product is not directly proportional to the amount of time we put in. There are new considerations with the rise of the service and intellectual labor class, chiefly: efficiency.
In Sweden, staff for the city of Gothenburg will be the first to experiment with a 6-hour work day. No reduction of pay, just a reduction of hours. The idea is that the staff will actually get more work done, because they will spend less timely trying to idly fill their expected 8 hours of work, and will instead work harder for a shorter period of time, thus finishing the same amount of work in less time.
"[The city] hopes that it will cut down on sick leave, boost efficiency, and ultimately save Sweden money . . . [Deputy Mayor Mats] Pilhem said he hoped the move would create more jobs, as he had seen evidence that longer shifts entailed less efficiency. In some sectors, such as elderly care, the problem was not staff shortages, he claimed, but people working inefficiently over longer shifts. He added that a Gothenburg car factory had recently tested the six-hour method and the results were encouraging."
Time will tell!
Bennett Hartz is an associate attorney at Drewes Law, PLLC who specializes in defending against debt collection and foreclosure. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The attorneys of Drewes Law have access to post and edit the blogs. Attorney Bios.