For many American workers, the traditional eight-hour-plus days, five days a week is no longer tolerable. Can we reimagine the status quo?
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“In the offices of America, there is a very powerful movement growing,” Jane Fonda said in a 1980 interview promoting the film 9 to 5. Women, and workers, she continued, “want to be treated with respect that manifests itself both in the paycheck and their treatment in the office.”
The same could be said today.
And despite being four decades old, 9 to 5, starring Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton as underpaid, over-competent secretaries, features workplace policies some still consider radical. The women implement perks like a flexible workshare program, pay equity, and an onsite daycare after they kidnap their chauvinist boss and chain him to the ceiling of his own house — but not without first enduring the brunt of their office’s toxic workplace culture. For example, Tomlin’s character, Violet, who acts as the well-oiled instrument essential in keeping the executive floor humming, is passed over for a promotion she was assured was hers. Meanwhile, Parton’s Doralee is wrongfully accused of having an affair with the boss, when it’s her who is being harassed. The three band together, not out of friendship, initially, but to fulfill the ultimate workplace revenge fantasy: Get rid of the mediocre white man in the corner office by any means necessary. As much as things have changed since the film’s release (the number of women who hold C-suite titles has risen, albeit slowly), the office can still be a volatile place, and the boundaries between work and life have only become more blurry.
For many Americans, our lives are defined by our careers. We work overtime to prove our loyalty to our employers. We take low-paying, entry-level jobs in an attempt to prove dedication and climb the corporate ladder. We’ve created such a strong culture of work that it’s commonplace to brag about how many hours you’ve spent behind a desk. And we’re burning out faster than ever.
The pandemic shattered many of our illusions about work—what it is, and what it can be. Over the last 18 months, Americans realized many jobs can be remote, being available 24/7 is not only unsustainable, it’s essentially a hoax, and, yes, that meeting could’ve been an email. But as some offices re-open for in-person work, the country is experiencing a “great resignation” — people quitting their jobs in search of more money, more flexibility (or both), and re-evaluating their relationship to work itself.
“Initially there was a real reluctance and hesitation to allow people to work from home or work remotely,” said Terri Gerstein, a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. “It was never really tested until the pandemic. And then, all of a sudden, we had this instantaneous change of operations, showing proof of concept.”
It’s become clear eight-hour-plus days, five days a week, are no longer working, which begs the question: How were we doing this for so long? The answer may lie in how we got here in the first place.
In the early 19th century, the majority of work was task-oriented and depended on the weather or the season. There was really no such thing as an hourly wage until factories gained popularity and big, industrial-sized machinery required people to be supervised under one roof. But factory conditions were dismal — they were overcrowded, dirty, and wages were so low entire families, including children, had to work to maintain a home. Workers routinely went on strike, but nothing really stuck until the National Labor Union started drumming up public support for a shortened workday in the late 1860s.
“The fight for the eight-hour day was a big, multi-generational fight,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for recreation.”
An eight-hour workday wouldn’t be enshrined into law until 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The act outlawed child labor and guaranteed a federal minimum wage and “time-and-a-half” overtime pay for work over 40 hours a week.
The “heyday of the 9 to 5” only lasted about 40 years, though, according to Lichtenstein, who said the once-revolutionary concept started eroding when employers found ways to exploit it.
“Employers in the 1950s started saying, ‘We aren’t going to hire new workers, we’ll just work people longer because that’s cheaper,’” Lichtenstein said. “It was a product of linking all of these social benefits to the job, and that’s when we started seeing things like mandatory overtime because paying time and a half was cheaper than giving new people pensions.”
Then came the rise of the service sector and part-time work, which effectively broke up the need for a 40-hour week for most Americans, because it depended on who walked in the door and not productivity. Instead of offering benefits, employers would offer extra hours to part-time workers as an incentive for loyalty and overwork. Simultaneously, there was a “hyperexpansion” of pseudo-professional titles like “manager” and “supervisor” to describe low-paid, salaried workers, positions popularized by corporations like Walmart and McDonalds, who were required to have “flexibility” — a term with many meanings.
“The word flexibility is a double-edged sword,” Lichtenstein said. “From a managerial point of view, flexibility means the company wants you to work when they need you, which creates chaos for the individual. Whereas flexibility from the point of view of the worker means if they need to take off work to do something, like take their kid to the doctor, they can.”
For decades, employees catered to their employer’s definition of flexibility out of fear they’d lose their jobs, or more importantly their health care benefits. And as years went on, the gap between a CEO’s salary and their workers’ became larger, and income inequality became harder to ignore, which brings us to today: The pandemic may have exposed existing fault lines in relation to how we work, but the power corporations clung onto for so long almost immediately shifted to the employee. The desire for flexibility has become so strong workers are willing to walk out if they don’t get it.
The transition we’re seeing right now is so rare, according to Lichtenstein, the last time we saw workers with this much say in workplace policy was during World War II. And it turns out what workers wanted 75 years ago isn’t so different from what we want now. “People want the ability to make a living, have work-life balance, and be able to care for their families,” said Gerstein, who is also the director of the project on state and local enforcement at the Harvard Law School labor and worklife program. “This includes a predictable schedule with sufficient pay, and where one job should be enough.”
“I think it’s becoming harder to argue that you need people in the office five days a week, every single day in order to get those benefits,” she added.
The shift in power workers felt throughout the pandemic has been palpable, so much so that policies envisioned by activists who’ve been pushing for an overhaul of how we work for decades are beginning to see significant momentum. Take, for example, the campaign for the four-day workweek. Entrepreneurs like billionaire Richard Branson support it, and companies like Kickstarter and Buffer, as well as the entire country of Spain, have plans to implement it. In July, Rep. Mark Takano of California introduced legislation to shorten the American workweek to 32 hours, stating, “Pilot programs run by governments and businesses across the globe have shown promising results as productivity climbed and workers reported better work-life balance.”
There has also been a myriad of studies showcasing that a shorter workweek doesn’t result in lost productivity, but rather, an increase in worker satisfaction.
Although, a four-day workweek won’t absolve all of our problems with work. The issue is more cultural than anything else. Remember, we love to brag about how much we work. And rarely have we seen cultural issues such as this fixed with a top-down approach. “When I think of the problems with the workplace, I’m increasingly arriving at the solution that we need a lot more unions and need people to be collectively bargaining,” Gerstein said.
Lichtenstein agrees, adding that young workers are expressing increased interest in unions now more than ever before. He, like Gerstein, sees unionization as the way forward for most workers to overhaul working conditions but understands unions face both cultural and political hostility.
“Unions curb unilateral authority, therefore managers don’t like them,” Lichtenstein said. “But because of the labor laws, it’s very hard to form a union, and therefore, unions have been weakened dramatically over the last 50 years and haven’t recovered.”
And despite capitalism being at the center of today’s biggest problems with work, Lichtenstein believes the most “radical” thing President Joe Biden has proposed in his tenure thus far is the idea of a “competitive capitalist economy” — where companies would, permanently, be competing for workers.
“If that’s the case, it gives workers many more choices, and obviously wages will be bid up, and it would make the unionization easier because people wouldn’t be afraid of losing their jobs,” he said.
For employers, reinventing the workweek is not as simple as throwing in extra benefits, flashy amenities like ping-pong tables and cold brew bars, nor offering unlimited paid time off or bumping up wages only to work people overtime. And for lawmakers, this means at the federal, state, and local level, passing laws like paid sick leave and paid family leave and holding corporations accountable when they commit workplace abuses in the form of workers’ rights laws.
While workers may be waiting for employers or the government to make the first move, the ball is really in their court. “People will always have more power when they act collectively than individually,” Gerstein said.
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