A 40-hour work week in 1950 = 11 hours of work in 2015

Take a look at this chart; I got it from here:

1950 Worker Productivity vs. 2015 Worker Productivity

Here’s the basic way to read that: a 40-hour/week worker in 1950 (far left of the chart) is essentially equivalent to an 11-hour/week worker in 2015. Phrased in a more logical way, it takes an average person about 11 hours/week to do what a post-WW2 worker took a full work week to do. This shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone: just off the advent of Microsoft Office and Google, you’d assume the work week would have to reduce (easier to present information, easier to share information, easier to find information). E-mail is a massive waste of time, but it has made things more effective, especially in terms of quickly and cost-effectively communicating with people in other offices/countries.

So: what does all this mean?

Reduction of Productivity Hours Since 1975

Before we start, let’s vet this a second: the data is from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now take a look at this: it’s from the same site, and it’s a reduction of productivity hours since 1975 (that’s vaguely when unions started becoming less and less of a thing):

1975 Productivity vs. 2015 Productivity

If you read this on face, a 40-hour/week worker in 1975 is equivalent to about a 28-hour/week worker in 2015. If you worked 28 hours a week right now, you’d probably be as productive as a full-time worker from 40 years ago.

The first thing I keep thinking when I read information like this is:

  • What are we always claiming to be so busy with if productivity and tools are gaining at this rate?
  • Why are we still so concerned with a 40-hour+ work week?

Now, there’s some nuance to all this, and obviously it varies by industry, by who your boss is, by how much personally you desire to get ahead, etc. There are a million and three factors at play here. You could also argue that we shouldn’t want to achieve “1950 levels of productivity” or “1975 levels of productivity” in 2015, and you’d be right there.

But this is the most complex business environment ever, right?

Here’s where the argument starts to fall apart, however: the first thing people often say when confronted with data like this is “Business is more complex and competitive now! It’s global!”

In reality, that’s probably not true:

But corporate profits have actually been rising since the 1990s, the opposite of what you’d expect if business was really so competitive. Puzzling anecdotes abound: Microsoft has missed out on a series of new products in the past decade, yet as Don Sull points out, it continues to be highly profitable.

The decline in competition shows up in all sorts of other metrics, starting with the size of companies. In a competitive economy you tend to get lots of little, focused companies. If a company tries to become big, it usually fails because it becomes less flexible and responsive to competitive threats. If it succeeds, that’s usually because it has economies of scale that serve as a competitive advantage. A variety of evidence suggests that company size has increased in the last decade, not decreased. Those competitive advantages are real.

Meanwhile we’re seeing less entrepreneurship. Overall new business formation is much lower than it was in the 1980s. Despite the internet and cheap, super-powerful computers, people aren’t seeing a lot of opportunity to challenge incumbents. Silicon Valley may be buzzing with startups, but as Eric Garland recently pointed out, most of them are trying to get sold to the giants, not to run them out of business. Business dynamism seems to have fallen, removing rivals that would have dampened profits in previous decades.

Why it’s not really: Macro vs. micro

This could be a good old-fashioned micro-macro issue: at the micro level (your day-to-day job at your desk or wherever you sit), you think everything is complex and competitive because people keep asking you to chase deliverables and throwing new projects into your lap. At the macro level (where the decision-making and guiding principles and analysis of competition and complexity take place), it’s really not as drastic as we think. This all largely comes back to most people being terrible managers, which is why rank-and-file employees think there’s so much on their plate when, in reality, things aren’t actually more complex.

Here’s what the article of the original research (the graphs) says about what should have happened to the work week:

Interestingly, as an article on labor history notes, shorter hours were assumed to be a natural consequence of increased productivity in the US until the 1930’s, appearing in the platforms of all major parties, and the above shows how the workweek would have evolved had the trend continued after World War II. In Europe, reduced worktime has continued to be an issue, and the workweek has been declining in recent times, unlike in the US. However, even in Europe, the decline in work time has fallen far behind the increase in productivity.

Yep. So in reality, we should be working somewhere between 11-28 hours a week, not 40. (I know there’s flaws in that thinking, but broadly-speaking, most people and most orgs could probably get away with it.)

In a way, I would think organizations would like this — people work less and that means, typically:

  • Less salary
  • Less benefits
  • More engagement (because you’re giving them back time, which people value)

Work is Virtue meets The Temple of Busy

The easiest and most logical way to do this would be a standardized four-day workweek, with people taking turns so that your office’s needs are covered on Fridays/weekends. This seems logical to me, and it seems good for the economy too: if people are off Fridays, they’re probably going to spend money in some capacity on those days — and, as such, pump a little back into the economic coffers. Working 32 hours/week is good for the soul, too — so the 32 hours your people are around will probably be more engaged. Remember: a basic “hard ceiling” for the work week should be 55 hours.

Most people will never get this, because of the intersection point of “Work Is Virtue!” and “The Temple Of Busy.” At that intersection, everyone tries to find some meaning in their work, throws themselves on the cross about their work, and then tells everyone how they have no time for anything else because of work. It’s a fun world.

Look, the deck is stacked right now in favor of businesses, companies, organizations — whatever word you choose. The government is considering new overtime rules, for example — and they’re not even going to benefit employees! It’s all about the bigwigs getting out with their mint intact, honestly. It’s been that way for years. That partially (perhaps too easily) helps explain inequality, and its rise.

Could we make a shift in work week/hours, though?

But this seems like a logical way to start making a shift:

  • Think about the people you have and what they do
  • Think about where you want to focus resources and efforts to generate revenue and growth
  • Move people around accordingly to maximize that potential (don’t need to fire anyone!)
  • Allow some people the opportunity to work 28-35 hours instead of 40+
  • Pay ’em less, benefit ’em less, but see them a bit more productive and happy
  • Realize that skill sets (you can learn most things somewhat easily) and connection back to organization (way less relevant than 1950) have changed a lot in the past few decades
  • Shift your business model to match that

Who’s with me?


Ted Bauer


  1. It’s dangerous to ask for or expect less of anything from employers. I view it as similar to a government-subsidized entity: always ask for more than you think you’ll get because as soon as you show that you can do about the same job with fewer resources, you’ll receive fewer resources (I’m especially thinking of budgets here). It’s also comparable to the “paradox of thrift” idea in economics: the more people save, the worse the economy does in aggregate because collective saving decreases demand, which can cause deflation and stagnation. Corporate profits have steadily risen due to outsourcing, mergers/acquisitions, and charging more for the same products. Productivity has risen because of technological advances and leadership through fear (people working longer, or seeming to, for fear of becoming redundant).

    I like the idea of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), which allows people the autonomy to get their work done without a set schedule. If you’re a night owl who works better at 10pm to 3am, so be it. It’s a sliding scale, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach like a set work week with specific work hours.

      • Nice…it seems that ROWE can be a litmus test for shitty employers vs. tolerable ones. It also seems that since deliverables are supposedly sooo important, ROWE would be embraced or at least tried more often than I think it is. I could see a potential problem with different people’s staggered schedules, though. For example, if person A needs info from person B who isn’t working when person A does, person A would have to try and “sync up” with person B until person A got the answer s/he needed, lol. I guess it’s all about being reasonably available, not necessarily “on the clock.”

      • It’s really all about most bosses treating adults like children who can’t manage themselves or their “deliverables.”

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