Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Why We Work Too Much

The five-day week is a surprisingly recent invention. It's time we revolted against it.


The three-day week, advocated recently by the Mexican multimillionaire, Carlos Slim, is such an obviously good thing, like freshly-ground coffee and reading to children, that I can’t be bothered to argue in favour of it.

The real issue is feasibility. Is it possible?

I believe so because I’ve done it myself. As a lecturer, I always tried to get my week’s teaching into three days, by working evenings, so I could have the other two free for writing. The catch is that this was successful only because I took care to let no one know what I was doing. Officially I was still working five days and so there was no offence to the five-day mindset.

The problem is that the five-day week is so long established it seems God given. And in fact this is partly true – it is a consequence of the combined interventions of God and Henry Ford, a formidable partnership. The six-day week was based on the time taken by God to create the world, a fact He should never have revealed (though few can resist bragging about their successful creations). In the early twentieth century, Henry Ford made Saturday a holiday for his workers, introducing the five-day week which quickly caught on. Having been the basic structure of most lives for almost a century, it now feels as inevitable as the cycles of the moon.

How to change this perception? One solution would be for God to admit that He did it all from Tuesday to Thursday, but only claimed it took six days to avoid making it seem too easy. Failing this, the human solution would be to look further back in history. There is a tendency to believe that the five-day convention was an improvement on all previous working hours, but it was an improvement only on the shockingly long hours worked in the aberrant nineteenth century. In pre-industrial Europe peasants often worked for as little as half the year. Harvard economist Juliet Schor has estimated recently that in fourteenth-century England, the average peasant work-year was a mere 150 days, a figure to make any contemporary wage slave envious and any American corporate lawyer suicidal.

The Middle Ages took the pragmatic view that work was a tedious necessity to be given as little time as possible, but in the course of the Industrial Revolution work became more of a duty, even a calling. One explanation of how this came about is Max Weber’s famous essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Weber, the change was brought about by the peculiar nature of Reformation Protestantism, which encouraged a view of worldly success as the mark of the saved and worldly failure as the mark of the damned. I find Weber's thesis entirely plausible, though it has been hotly disputed, especially by Protestants and capitalists.

What seems incontestable is that, for whatever reason, work has become for many a sort of substitute religion, a source of the religious reassurances of meaning, purpose and identity.

More recently, work has provided another reassurance that is becoming harder to find in society at large – a sense of community. Astute employers now do everything possible to make the team the new family and the workplace the new village. Hence the frequent team-building activities outside work and the multitude of services offered by the more sophisticated corporations.

And of course the job has always been a source of prestige and power. Everyone needs to feel superior in some way (a need that extends down to insect level – garbage-disposal ants are despised and segregated by other ants) and an impressive job title is a common way to achieve this. I used to hate admitting that I was a schoolteacher but loved telling people that I was a university lecturer.

The career ladder cunningly plays on this need by offering regular increments of prestige: not only does the job make you superior, but if you play the game you can become even more superior every few years, as your titles become more resounding. These prestige increments may be even more important than the increases in pay – in my experience of forty years full-time employment almost all colleagues were obsessed with promotion.

For many there is also the lure of increasing power – fatally attractive to bullies. But power is merely the symbol of strength, not the reality. True strength comes from the person, not the position, and is based on authority not power. Power commands; authority inspires. Those who seek power are not strong but weak. So it may well be true that the most effective managers are those who did not especially want to be managers (and so have no craving for power), just as the most effective employees may well be those who believe in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay (and so do not see the job as a source of identity and prestige).

Everyone, even employers, could benefit from a more pragmatic approach to work. Indeed, the five-day week became established in the first place because, much to everyone’s surprise, it improved productivity at Ford. There are a lucky few who are paid to do what they truly love and would do so even without pay, but the majority have to work at something not especially congenial in order to live. It would be wise to accept work for what it is: the means to life rather than the meaning of life, and certainly not a source of purpose, identity, community, prestige or power. It is the overvaluation of work, and particularly the hunger for regular promotion, that would make many employees reluctant to agitate for a three-day week, believing, no doubt correctly, that this would damage their career prospects.

But how to change attitudes based on so many deep human needs? It does no harm to have a billionaire advocate a three-day week, but to be really effective the impetus has to come from below, from the employees themselves. There will have to be an inspirational figure, a Spartacus of the cubicle slaves, to lead a mindset-changing movement with slogans like Work To Remember That Work Is Just Work and Five Into Three Should, Can And MUST Go.



Latest Releases
Join the conversation

Sign in to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

estrayer 15 December 2014

I share in my classroom the notion that, as Michael Foley suggests, we work too much. This issue is multifold. One, we work, most of us around 90,000 hours in our lifetime, doing either nothing worthwhile or something that is counterproductive to society and the environment. My standard rap is this:
The Barbie Doll. There are over a thousand iterations of the Barbie Doll. What is it? It is first a piece of plastic that is a petroleum product that in its production via heat for moulding has polluted the atmosphere at the outset. Second, it promotes a socially counter-productive gender stereotype anathema to real little girls' potential in all areas outside of being a princess or beach bunny, inhibiting at the outset a focus on academics, science, literature and all the rest of the stuff found here. Further, the inability of the vast majority of little girls to match the body style of Barbie (among a plethora of other media elements) exacerbates, were it does not actually cause, what is called body dysmorphism - a false or overstated self perception of being over weight. To wit: a veritable epidemic of anorexia and bulimia. Finally, when the Barbie doll is used up, broken and discarded, being plastic, it now becomes land pollution. Should, in some fashion it be attempted to recycle her, by melting her down into some glob to be turned into some other plastic product, again, the heat needed to do so is released into the atmosphere once more to do its dirty work.
So we have a number of people in careers working excessively to market, design, and manufacture this little pink beast. And, no doubt, in the assembly we have underpaid exploited workers, some likely children still, in lesser developed nations or those "emerging" ones, working long hours in hostile environments.
Consider if we did not make the Barbie doll. Or waste thousands of hours and immense amounts of fossil fuel moving her around in large trucks and ocean freighters. Imagine if she never came to mind at all. The world would certainly be a better place.
Taking a quick look around in any grocery store you see again, hundreds of iterations of the same thing (consumer choice) such as cardboard boxes full of fourteen ounces of sugar and carbohydrates for over three dollars. Five or six brands of milk, most in plastic. Etcetera, etcetera.
If we stayed home more, providing we have a home, and did nothing, we would be, in effect, doing more.
But for one thing. We would not be making someone rich. And there's the rub. Work being considered valuable for its own sake, what is called in many circles the Protestant Work Ethic, is the myth that keeps the system running, and us working, producing mostly useless crap or spinning our wheels to move it around or to move around the ones and zeros on our computers, al to make a few wealthy and powerful enough to keep us from stopping.

Heather Mitchell 16 September 2014

There would be quite enough work for everyone if we had a three-day week. Maybe SOME of us over 50 would even be considered. :-/

Heather Mitchell 16 September 2014

Yes, yes and thrice yes.

iai donation
iai donation
iai donation