The eight-hour workday, five days a week routine is central to US work place culture. And Dolly Parton immortalized it in her 1980 song “9 to 5.”
Many believe it to be standard practice. The same as always.
But it wasn’t always the case. Since the end of World War II, it has only maintained that level.
One union, one industry, one firm, or one law did not determine the eight-hour standard for the United States. Instead, it was the result of a protracted and intricate combination of political compromises, labor activities, advocacy, innovative employers, and economic competition.
Here is a (very) condensed overview of how US society came to accept an eight-hour workweek.
The evolution of the workday duration
According to economic historian and University of Iowa professor Benjamin Hunnicutt, the duration of the workday generally decreased from the 1800s through World War II, with a very sharp dip occurring in the 1920s.
However, the descent started from a quite high point.
According to economist Robert Whaples, a professor at Wake Forest University, who put out a thorough history on the development of hours worked in the United States for the Economic History Association, working more than 70 hours a week was typical in the mid-1800s.
That works out to about 12 hours a day, given that people used to work six days a week.
Not that there weren’t instances of people working much harder than that in the early 20th century. For instance, Whaples reports that blast furnace employees in the steel sector put in an average of 84 hours a week during the close of World War I.
“These unusually lengthy hours were the focus of much criticism and a significant problem in a strike that started in September 1919. Despite the strike’s failure, US Steel cut its workday from twelve to eight hours four years later.