Why do we work 40 hours and have a two day weekend?

There’s nothing essential about our entrenched 35-40 hour standard working week. It hasn’t always been this way.

There isn’t even anything essential about the week comprising seven days. That’s hard to get your head round, but think about it… why should the week be seven days long? No reason. It doesn’t relate to anything in nature, or anything else. It’s arbitrary. The seven day week seems to have been invented in ancient Babylon.

Robert Owen, the utopian socialist, was an early advocate of limits to working hours. He petitioned for working hours restrictions throughout Europe in 1818. This was rejected as ‘lunatic’.

But despite the perceived lunacy of the idea, restrictions to working hours did start to emerge in the UK. Children we the first to benefit – in the Factory Acts of 1831 and 1833 children under 18 were no longer permitted to work longer than 12 hours a day. Hardly a massive achievement by today’s standards – but further change followed rapidly. Barely more than a decade later, in 1844, the adult working day was limited to 12 hours, and children’s to 6.5 hours.

In the second half of the 19th century, pressure for the eight hour day grew. The ‘Eight Hour League’, under the famous slogan “eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours what you will” successfully pressured the Trades Union Congress to adopt eight hour days as a goal, around the turn of the century. Sidney Webb, one of the founders of modern sociology, was also an advocate. However, while the eight hour day has indeed become the standard in the UK, there is no legislation requiring it (although there is legislation limiting the total working week to 48 hours). The eight hour day became the norm piece by piece through the struggles of individual workplaces. By 1930 weekly hours in Britain were down to 47 and by 1980 to 40.

Similarly, in the middle of the 19th century, a six day working week was taken as given. One explanation given for the weekend is that some Britons (not your ancestors, obviously) tended to spend their one day off drinking more than praying – opting for gin rather than chapel, so to speak -and would then skip work on Mondays to recover. The 1850 Factory Act thus provided for a half day on Saturdays, allowing the rest of Saturday for merriment and enabling everyone to turn up bright eyed and bushy tailed on Monday morning. The full two day weekend is said to have originated in parts of the US, to accommodate the Jewish community whose day of religious observance in Saturday, and to have been cemented by the Great Depression.

The point is that it was previously thought that particular lengths and patterns to working weeks were somehow natural, and that reducing their length would bring economic ruin. It didn’t.

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