Working time

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(Redirected from Working week)

Working time refers to the period of time that an individual spends at paid occupational labor. Unpaid labors such as housework are not considered part of the workweek.


History of working time

Popular belief depicts pre-industrial life as grim and full of toil. While the standard of living then certainly does not match that of today, several labor historians have pointed out that "full of toil" fails to describe pre-industrial life accurately. In those times, non-enslaved people generally worked fewer hours per year than they do today, though on a less regular cycle: their workweeks exceeded the modern standard during seasons when the extra work would be useful, but fell short of it during others. This depended on the productive system of the land. Intensive agriculture and pastoralism demand a variable amount of effort over the course of the year.

The industrial revolution made it easier to find work year-round, since this labor was not tied to the season, and artificial lighting made work possible for the greater part of the day. Peasants, often manipulated into positions of debt and disadvantage by individuals of higher social class, moved from the farms to the factories to work at labor that was tedious and dangerous, for long periods of time. Technological advances during early capitalism made it possible to extract upwards of 70 hours per week of working time from a person. Before collective bargaining and worker protection laws, there was a financial incentive for a company to maximize the return on expensive machinery in spite of the suffering of workers. Records indicate that work schedules as arduous as 12 to 16 hours per day, six to seven days per week, were demanded of wage earners. This 19th Century work schedule was the most intense work effort in the history of labor.

Over the 20th Century, work hours declined by almost half, largely thanks to the rise of trade unions and collective bargaining, and to progressive legislation. The workweek, in most of the industrialized world, dropped steadily, to about 40 hours after World War II. The decline has continued at a slower pace in Europe - for example, France adopted a 35-hour workweek in 2000 - but not in North America. Working hours in industrializing economies like South Korea, though still much higher than the leading industrial countries, are also declining steadily.

Annual hours over eight centuries

TimeType of workerAnnual hours
13th centuryAdult male peasant, U.K.1620 hours
14th centuryCasual laborer, U.K.1440 hours
Middle agesEnglish worker2309 hours
1400-1600Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.1980 hours
1840Average worker, U.K.3105-3588 hours
1850Average worker, U.S.3150-3650 hours
1987Average worker, U.S.1949 hours
1988Manufacturing workers, U.K.1856 hours
2000Average worker, Germany1362 hours

(Compiled by Juliet B. Schor from various sources; Germany figure from OECD data)

Importance of working time

Working time is a quantity that can be measured for an individual or, in the aggregate, for a society. In the latter case, a 40-hour workweek would imply that employed individuals within the society, on average, worked 40 hours per week. Most often, the concern of sociologists and policy-makers focuses on the aggregate variables. If an individual works 60 hours per week, it could simply mean that he or she is enthusiastic about his or her job, not a cause for concern. However, if long workweeks become the norm in a society, these hours almost certainly are not voluntary, and it represents a drought of leisure and a threat to public health.

Each society's definition of the ideal workweek differs, but most industrialized nations place this value between 30 and 40 hours per week, during non-vacation time, with between 3 and 5 weeks of (usually paid) vacation. Societies differ in their ability to realize this: For example, in the United States, many workers are afforded little vacation time, or even none at all.

When working time is too short, this represents underemployment of labor and human capital. Individuals within such a society will tend, therefore, to do less work than they are capable of, and may receive correspondingly low compensation.

Alternately, a workweek that is too long will result in stress-related health problems, on the large scale, as well as a drought of leisure. Furthermore, children are likely to receive less attention from overworked parents, and childrearing is likely to be subjectively worse. The exact ways in which excessive workweeks affect culture, public health, and education are debated, but the existence of such a danger is undisputed.

Furthermore, if demand for labor remains constant, increasing working time for employed workers will correspondingly reduce the number of workers. Firms will lay off employees, and unemployment results. This is profitable for companies and for the upper classes, but a losing situation for all within the labor force: Employed individuals are worked more hours than they wish (if salaried, for constant pay) while individuals who would like work cannot find it.

Several nations have imposed limits on working time in order to combat unemployment. This has been done both on a national level, as in France's 35-hour workweek, and on the company-union level, for example the agreement between Volkswagen and its union to temporarily reduce the workweek to 29 hours to preserve jobs. This policy is controversial among economists.

Differences among countries and recent trends

Missing image
Annual work hours (source: OECD data)

Western Europe

In most Western European countries, the workweek is gradually decreasing, although the decrease does not nearly keep pace with the increase in productivity. See eg 35-hour workweek.

However, the biggest difference in annual working time between Europe and the US is on holiday entitlements. In Europe, fixed employment comes with 4-6 weeks paid annual leave as standard. In the US, two weeks is generous, and not infrequently workers are afraid to take up their full entitlement in case it might jeopardise their job security.

United States

In the United States, by contrast, working time has been increasing. Many workers put in longer hours than the 40 hour standard. One reason is a work-oriented culture. For example, in industries like investment banking, a 40-hour workweek is considered "slacker" behavior and may result in job loss. Also, some nations enforce their workweek policies more stringently than others, the United States being an example of a country where workweek policies are not strictly enforced. The U.S. legally allows many types of compensation, and two of the most common are wage and salary labor. Wage earners are compensated on a per-hour basis, whereas salaried workers are compensated on a per-week basis.

The 40-hour workweek, in effect, applies only to wage laborers. Legally, they may be required to work more than 40 hours, but firms are required to pay time-and-a-half, or 1.5 times the worker's base wage, for each hour of work past 40. After 60 hours per week, firms are required to pay double-time, or twice the base rate. This has two major effects: First of all, it provides an incentive for companies to limit working time. Secondly, it makes these additional hours more desirable for the worker. In fact, it is not uncommon for overtime hours to be accepted voluntarily by wage-earning workers, due to the premium pay. Unions often treat overtime as a desirable commodity when negotiating how these opportunities shall be partitioned among union members.

Salaried workers are not covered by overtime protections. At the time the laws were written, salaried workers were predominantly of the upper-middle and upper classes, and these individuals were autonomous enough that there was no need for them to be legally protected.

Today, by contrast, even salaried and professional workers are sometimes marginalized by "dieting" firms, especially during economic downturns when skilled workers are in surplus. By increasing a salaried worker's workweek, his or her per-hour pay is effectively reduced, so labor becomes cheaper. Many American corporations have done just that, laying off as many workers as possible, making their labor forces understaffed by a factor as high as 2 or 3, and leaving their employees to make up for the lost workers with longer hours. While virtually all observers have decried this situation as immoral, it persists, driven by the corporate profit motive.


See also

Further reading

External links

no:Arbeidsuke nl:Werkweek de:Arbeitszeit


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