Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan
In the earliest days, foraging was key. Fruits, berries, edible plants and roots comprised a varied diet, the roots often mashed and made into meal.
Then there were days when the men — usually layabouts for foraging — would get the urge in their bellies for meat. That was when all the chatting and bonding paid off. Working together they could down a large beast and share the meat with the whole group … feasting for several days.
No nine-to-five slavery in those times, no five-day work week. That is all of recent vintage. And it leads to an unmistakable Monday morning feeling …
Millions of alarm bells sound in the wee hours of the morning, as semi-comatose individuals slide their snooze buttons hoping for a moment’s rest before the inevitable rush to the office. The weekend is over. Fun over, work beckons. Marching along like ants going to their own funeral, masses of people will soon swarm into the subway, vying for a seat in a stench-free area, surrounded shoulder to shoulder with others like them.
And for what when we know first hand that wage buying power hasn’t changed in decades while US income inequality continues to grow. Good luck to the rich who keep getting richer as the stock market booms while trends in wealth show the lower 60 percent have seen a net worth decline. Can we ever get a real wage increase? Yes, by working fewer hours for the same weekly salary when the over overtime on a few hours more would boost our financial health. More money and free time makes for a happier work and life balance. Just as raising the minimum wage, it would have an impact on pay inequality as economist Ben Zipperer made clear in his testimony before Congress last year.
For most of us, next come the Tuesday blues, that lethargic, listless feeling of no escape. Wednesdays mark the halfway point, Thursdays bring the hope of almost-Friday, and then Friday arrives with the joy of the weekend break. But soon it will be Monday morning again. The majority of our lives are spent working. The weekend leaves barely enough time for recovery, laundry, and if we’re lucky a smidgen of fun, before returning to the tedium of the five-day work week. It’s not that the powers that be are unaware of our circumstances. As long ago as 1935, the Senate Judiciary Committee held thirty-hour work week hearings but the idea failed to get traction. .
But is this weekly misery necessary? And where did it come from?
One year marks an orbit of the Earth around the sun. Months too are derived from astronomy. Five thousand years ago, the ancient Sumerian calendar had 12 months marked by the sighting of a new moon. They did not have weeks. And archaeologists have discovered a hunter gatherer calendar from Aberdeen, Scotland dating farther back from 8,000 B.C., which also appeared to mimic phases of the moon to track months.
The history of the seven-day week leads us to Babylon 4,000 years ago. With a lunar month they used seven days to represent each of the four phases of the moon, adding an intercalary day(s) to synchronize it to the actual lunar cycle. All of which worked out very well because they believed there were seven planets in the solar system and deemed the number significant. The seven-day week eventually spread to Egypt, Greece, and thence to India, China and Rome, ending up in the Gregorian calendar we use today.
The five-day work week was first introduced in a New England mill in 1908. Before this, Saturdays were a half day and Sundays a holiday.
It was not expected that humans would still be doing this a century later. John Maynard Keynes in 1930 predicted that the work week would be reduced to 15 hours, within a couple of generations, due to advancements in technology. In 2017, economist and historian Rutger Bregman put forward its feasibility by 2030 in his best seller, Utopia for Realists. A Senate subcommittee in 1965 also predicted we would be working 14-hour weeks by the year 2,000.
More recently, companies have started to study whether there are benefits to a four-day work week. Microsoft Japan recently reported the results of a four-day work week study. The company had employees work four days while receiving five-day pay. The results were striking – a whopping 40% increase in productivity. The firm also reported increased efficiency in several areas, including lower electricity and paper usage.
A New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian in 2018 experimented with a four-day work week with five-day pay. It resulted in a 20 percent increase in productivity while employees experienced a 45 percent improvement in work-life balance. The company has now made the policy permanent.
Another example is a company called Basecamp. Employees work 8 hours a day for four days. Jason Fried, the CEO, states in a New York Times op-ed that “Better work gets done in four days than in five.”
Despite the jokes about civil servants they do work, and some very hard. In a study of British civil servants, it was determined that those who worked 55 hours per week showed a comparatively greater cognitive decline some three years later than those working for 40 hours. Imagine what happens to us when we extend this to a lifetime of 40-plus-hour weeks.
The question is, do we need to work even 40 hours per week? If Keynes predicted humans would only need to work 15 hours by this point in time, and there has been an explosion of technological advancements in the last 30 years unimaginable to him — from computers to robotics to the internet and advancements in every type of engineering and medical field — then why are we still 40-hour slaves, particularly when the Basecamp example has demonstrated that 32 hours per week is equally or perhaps more productive?
Next is the question of whether even 32 hours, as at Basecamp, are necessary. David Graeber is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. His 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory describes jobs that appear to have no useful purpose. These are far more common that one might expect. In a poll of British citizens, 37% considered their jobs meaningless. In the Netherlands, 40% of respondents believed their job had no reason to exist. Graeber defines bullshit jobs as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”
In many of these jobs, employees sit at a desk five days a week with nothing to do. In other jobs, higher management invents tasks for subordinates to complete solely to fill their time. Some jobs exist merely for appearances. He splits them into categories, encompassing jobs with which we are all too familiar. “Flunkies” serve the purpose of making others feel superior (these include doormen, assistants, etc.). “Goons” encompass those such as the public relations professional whose job is to show the public that Oxford is a top school! “Duct tapers” are people in an organization who have to deal with its incompetence. For example, the person who handles lost luggage at an airport or addresses complaints on the phone. “Box tickers” are designed to look busy and push paper work forward. “Taskmasters” are split into two types – those that assign more bullshit work to subordinates “bullshit generators”, and those who supervise people who do not need supervision.
For the 60% of people who do not have “bullshit jobs” – studies have shown that fewer work days increases productivity and efficiency, not to mention mental well being. Companies will be more efficient, workers will work better and will be rested and refreshed, and employees will be more likely to stay in their jobs. It’s a plus-sum game if the work week is cut to 30 hours/ 4 days forthwith. Anything beyond 30 hours would be overtime, at time-and-a-half rates. The proposal is still twice John Maynard Keynes’ 15-hour expectation.
There is another very good reason for this proposal: Real wages in the US have been stagnant since the 1960s while the GDP is up over four fold and the stock market Dow is up about ten times, also in real terms i.e. after allowing for inflation. It means stock and asset holders have been getting much, much richer while the working sucker is getting nowhere. Cutting the work week down is a fair way to get part way (a very small part) even. It is 25 percent less work and a one-third real increase in wages making a minor dent in the horrendous inequality in the US, which happens to be way ahead in this dubious honor among all developed countries.
It is a long time since the hunter gatherers of Scotland or the Babylonians. Their week remains ingrained, and the weekend created thousands of years later expanded from the Biblical single day of rest to one-and-a-half days in England, and then finally to two in New England at the beginning of the 20th century. A hundred years later, is it not high time we advanced to three days? Or perhaps to diminish the chances of worse Monday morning blues, it might be better to work two days, have a day off, then two more days of work before the regular weekend. Humans were not designed for undue stress, we were designed for leisure, to be gathering food as we need it, and occasionally hunting, as the Scots mentioned earlier, and others of our ancestors did happily for generations.
Authors’ Note: This article first appeared on Truthout.org in a shorter edited version.