workweek posture picture

It’s time to destroy the 40-hour workweek. Photo: Joe Loong/Flickr

Our American economy needs you to work nothing less than 40 hours per week. The message is simple: earn more, collect belongings, and don’t stop until you retire/die. Unless you meet this expectation, be prepared to be called lazy and unproductive — stuck in the unfortunate world of lower and middle incomes. And if you’re not doing something that makes more money than your neighbor, you ought to think about changing careers.

McMansions, vehicles, and stores grow. In turn, our consumption escalates. We need more to fill our bigger homes; otherwise, they feel empty. Meanwhile, our wallets are stripped and we maintain this cycle of work and near poverty — just getting by. Despite going through a horrific “great recession” over the last few years, companies have continued to report record revenue and profits. The business world is clearly benefiting from our workweek and continued spend.

This current system is predicated on infinite growth. If you’re not continually benefiting from pay raises and getting promoted, you’re not doing it right. Since the Industrial Revolution, we haven’t stopped to seriously question what we’ve created and amassed. Like worker zombies, it’s hard not to see the countless hours we put into companies — all so that we reach financial independence.

Steel Mills Pittsburgh PA Workweek

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the steel boom. Clouds of ash engulfed the city continually.

Unfortunately, infinite growth has two awful consequences: unstable population and climate change. The world population was about 300 million in 1000 AD. The Industrial Revolution sparked atmospheric population increases. Now, the U.S. alone has around 300 million citizens. There are over 7 billion people on the planet, and that number is rapidly increasing.

As we developed more efficient means to produce and manufacture goods, fossil fuel use increased and never stopped. The delicate balance of carbon dioxide in the air shifted and it devastated our climate. We are suffering from an inescapable greenhouse gas effect where the temperature of Earth rises and natural disasters worsen. Even when faced with this dire news, we make a societal shrug and continue to pump out record amounts of oil and coal to feed growth.

The market demands this. If you watch the stock market, you’ll see investors and institutions pressure companies for constant revenue growth. Stagnation is likened to the death of a company — maintenance isn’t enough. We have a myopic economic policy of long-term instability for short-term riches. Profits over people is a rewarded mantra on Wall Street, and it leads to absurd business practices that hurt their employees and our environment further.

We live in a world where the Koch brothers are lobbying to tax alternative energy sources, Microsoft stock (MSFT) increases when they announce thousands in job cuts, and corporate executives are paid, on average, 350-to-1 for regular employees. Incontrovertible evidence suggests that we are causing irreparable harm to our environment, while we maintain this status quo.

It’s time to break out of this cyclical destruction. We need to find another method to contribute to society in a positive manner — one that doesn’t cause harm to future generations and massive environmental diaspora.

It may all start with reducing our workweek, because the 40-hour schedule is destructive:

“The eight-hour workday developed during the industrial revolution in Britain in the 19th century, as a respite for factory workers who were being exploited with 14- or 16-hour workdays.

As technologies and methods advanced, workers in all industries became able to produce much more value in a shorter amount of time. You’d think this would lead to shorter workdays.

But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.”

The idea of changing this age-old work life is gaining popularity. In Sweden, government offices are attempting a shift to a 6-hour workday:

“Municipal staff in Gothenburg will act as guinea pigs in a proposed push for six-hour workdays with full pay, with hopes that it will cut down on sick leave, boost efficiency, and ultimately save Sweden money.”

See, the Swedes understand that by cutting back, their employees will be more productive with their time and suffer from less burnout. Even in capitalistic America, the founders of Google are beginning to advocate for reductions in our workweek. In the following video, the tech titans are advocating for this change for a more productive future.

There’s a tragic irony about this whole problem: we developed technologies, vehicles, and our massive global economy to increase productivity. But who’s really benefited from these changes except a select few? Most workers are working more than ever, despite record productivity and profitability. We haven’t invented and invested in a technology that truly eased our workweeks.

The system is broken and skewed. We have an opportunity to respect our fellow humans and environment — for generations to come. Perhaps it’s time to shift forward, and evolve towards empathy and positive economic models. Perhaps it’s time to emphasize healthy companies over exorbitant profits. Infinite growth is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources. Let’s throwaway these antiquated economic ideals.