Work week: How we view it is a joke

Work Week

I’ve written about the standard western world work week a few dozen times by this point. I’ll sprinkle some of those links later on in this post.

Here’s the basic deal with the work week: it makes absolutely no sense. In July 2016, about 125.51 million people in the United States were employed on a full-time basis. There is no way for 125.51 million people to all be the same. Some will be smart, some dumb. Others will be very good at their jobs, and many will be middling. A few can complete tasks quickly without error, and others rush and do everything wrong. People are different. We’re all unique somehow. Give me a trophy. I’m a millennial! (That was a joke, by the way.)

Because you’ve got 125.51 million people chasing the cheddar full-time — and that’s just U.S. — you need to think real seriously about how the work week is organized. Let’s do a little bit of that now.

How did we get here on the 40-hour work week?

There are a bunch of different factors that created our current understanding of the work week. Most of the whole deal is attributed to Henry Ford. In fact:

Eight-hour days became rallying cries in the latter half of the 19th century, as workers in the building trades and similar industries marched together for better conditions. The Ford Motor Company advanced the idea in 1914, when it scaled back from a 48-hour to a 40-hour workweek after founder Henry Ford believed that too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity.

Henry Ford died in 1947. In 2010 USD, though, he’d be worth about $200 billion. For context, Bill Gates is currently worth about $78.6 billion. Henry Ford, then, would be 2x wealthier than Bill Gates — and yet, he was cutting back the work week due to productivity issues.

Think of most CEOs you know and/or can conceptualize. You think anyone would actively be dropping people eight hours? Or would they be demanding another 18? Odd time we live in. And now … this.

The most ridiculous arc of the work week historically

In 1930, Keynes — a relatively famous economist — said that by 2030, the standard would be a 15-hour work week. Yep. The standard.

As we know, that didn’t happen. The average number in most cities is around 40, so that’s good in a way — but almost every survey you encounter talks of increased work stress and no time to get it all done. There are a couple of reasons for that; we’ll get to those in a second.

But think about this: in 1930, we didn’t have Google. We didn’t have Microsoft Office. Hell, we hadn’t even had WW2 yet. The Boomers weren’t born!

In the 86 years since, we’ve seen huge jumps in productivity tools, connection tools, speed of sending messages, and, well — basically everything. Despite all these things that should make us work less and more effectively, we’re actually working more — at least in America, but in other western economies too (not all).

In 1930, I was not alive. (Neither were my parents.) But if I had to guess, orchestrating something at work would be a bit of a challenge. A lot of face-to-face and some literal paper-pushing. I also realize much of the economy in the 1930s was not “knowledge-based,” but still. Think about setting up meetings, having meetings, creating memos, storing documents, etc. It’s all very complicated. Now I save something in Google Drive and scan a person’s calendar for 2.5 seconds. It’s a lot easier.

So if we working 40 hours or so in 1930, why the hell is our work week in 2016 the same or more?

The “business is more complex” work week argument

This is the common one you hear. Globalization + new middle class economies + more technology to manage = we’ve gotta sell our soul to work.

There are elements of those arguments that are true, but I think the bigger picture is this:

At the intersection of those three bullets, you start to see “Business is so complex!” as a myth and “Business is overly political hogwash where no one feels relevant and thus tries to invent it in a way closely approximated to sniffing glue.” So that’s fun!

The work week and the workaholic

Written before about how we deify the workaholic, and if you check out that article, you’ll see this quote:

Rich American men, by comparison, are the workaholics of the world. They put in significantly longer hours than both fully employed middle-class Americans and rich men in other countries. Between 1985 and 2010, the weekly leisure time of college-educated men fell by 2.5 hours, more than any other demographic. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun,” the economist Robert Frank wrote.

“Closest thing they have to fun.” Yep. That’s kinda where the game is truly played.

Look: most people vaguely understand that 55 hours/week is a hard ceiling on effective, productive work. We’re all generally smart enough to “get” this, right? But we still let the executives rush in chest-pounding about “doing 88 hours last week” as they’re “building the business.” Great. Maybe they did. I don’t know. I don’t watch them all day and night. But I will tell you this: if they did 88, they weren’t productive for probably 30-40 of those 88. Isn’t the goal of work, uh, productivity? When did it become quantity? Did I miss a memo?


The work week became a boondoggle because it’s predominantly white men chasing targets and wealth. Obviously it’s gonna fall off a cliff when that group gets their hands on it.

The work week: Prepare to have your mind blown

Every now and then you’ll see an article about some guy (usually a guy) who moved his company to a 4-hour day or 5-hour day and OMG the results! Tim Ferriss basically became famous in part because of these ideas. Here’s another such article, with the head of Tower Paddle Boards. Now, this is a “beach lifestyle brand,” and you can argue it’s actually good for the company to have their employees working less hours and at the beach. So maybe it’s all a scheme. But here’s the interesting part:

The reality is that we didn’t take a hit at all. Our annual revenues for 2015 were up over 40%. All our numbers were improving, in fact. When I tell people my team only works five hours a day, their response is always, “That’s nice, but it won’t work for me.” The 9-to-5 workday (or worse) is so ingrained that it’s hard to imagine anything else.

So. If you’re chasing money, maybe you should try to do more (productivity) with less (time) and the revenue growth shall come. Or maybe it won’t work for you.

The work week and people buckets

Going back above, where I said people are different, I’d argue most workplaces of over 50 people usually have these buckets of workers:

  • Workaholics (typically execs/senior leaders/KPI chest-pounders)
  • Effective/productive types (sit there 40-50 hours/week, but have finished most tasks in 2o)
  • Gossip/social people (don’t do much except bullshit around)
  • Totally ineffective people (whiff on targets, take 70 hours to populate three-question forms for their boss)
  • Claimers (do nothing and have no actual results at FY end, but claim every day to be super busy and important and slammed)

Those are very generalized buckets, but that’s usually what I’ve seen.

Now go back to the quote from Tower Paddle Boards — about the work week being so ingrained. It’s ingrained for these reasons:

  • People want purpose at work, but the company/leadership isn’t providing that
  • People also want relevance at work, but ditto
  • Priority alignment at most jobs is a farce, so many are often unsure what to work on
  • Change is hard for most individuals, and even more for organizations

We’ve done this 40-hour work week deal rooted in seat time for two-three generations by now. With the amount of WiFi connectivity and tech we have these days, that model makes no sense. 40-hour work week barely makes sense, for real. But we’re clinging to it at a complex intersection of psychology and fearing change.

Anything else you’ve seen, or would add, on the current work week?

Ted Bauer


  1. I’ve been railing agains the notion a the standard work week for years. It makes zero sense. If you are a “knowledge worker” it is pointless to have to put in super long hours to get things done. There will be weeks/months were you will need to work a TON due to a particular effort or project. Then there will be weeks/months that is not the case. The issue is that we are still in the mindset that “if I’m busy I’m important or needed”. Which is horseshit. I could answer 100 emails a day and still get nothing done. Tracking hours could be good to understand how long it takes someone, but even that seems weird. Something that I’m super good at, could take me 1/4 of the time it takes someone else. Does that mean I should slow down? Does that mean they should speed up? It’s likely that means I’m more valuable for that particular thing. So if that is all I’m doing, do I need to spend 40, 50, 60 hours doing it?

    The other reason our work weeks are so long is that companies expect that people will do everything ourselves. Writing, creating graphics, analyzing data, etc. etc. When my dad was alive he had people that helped him with things he wasn’t proficient at doing. He was able to contemplate and reflect on big issues. He was able to create powerful solutions…not worry about how to align bullets or why something won’t copy over correctly. This is why there are 100 blogs that say the exact same thing over and over and over. People feel like they have “not time” to develop awesomeness.

    Sorry for the long reply, this just strikes a cord. I’m amazed at how much people STILL feel like long hours are a sign of anything. It feels like it should be the opposite. If I have tons of experience and it takes me just as long to do my job, doesn’t that mean I suck? I should know how to do things efficiently. Now, I might need to teach others or take on additional responsibilities. But, over time, I’ll get better at those too…..

    Great blog!

    • Most of work — especially for men — is just a quest for relevance and importance they aren’t finding elsewhere. That explains most of what I wrote and what you wrote. It’s sadly more important for many people to toss themselves on the cross about how busy and important they are than to actually do work and be productive. Some of the smartest people I know hit targets in about 18 hours/week and make 3.5x what some of the 88-hour guys make. It’s all about how you prioritize and approach things. No one gets that.

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