Forty hour week

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The Forty Hour Week is a widespread, near-universal standard in industrialized countries for defining a work week. Although far from a universal standard today, the 40-hour week has been a standard starting point in discussion of most major variants of the working week.

Discussion of limiting the length of the work week first arose with labor organizations in response to the horrendous working conditions in factories and industrial settings following the industrial revolution. It relies heavily on an extension of the Biblical idea in the book of Genesis of the seventh day of creation as a day of rest or leisure. Widespread interest in the 40-hour week arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as labor organizations and individual workers pressed for higher wages and greater leisure.


Many variations of the standard 40-hour week have emerged, including the 37.5-hour week, the four-day week, four-off/four-on and many others. The 37.5 hour work week is often defined either as a 40-hour week/8-hour workday minus a half-hour break for lunch each day, or a work-day with two 15-minute breaks each day (and allowance for lunch by adjusting starting and ending times). The four-day week is usually defined as four working days rather than five, each consisting of 10 hours rather than eight. Another variant on this idea is that rather than a standard 4-day workweek (e.g., Monday-Thursday), workers work four consecutive days, then have a four day "weekend", then work another four days and have the next four days off, and so on.

Nine to Five

Originally, the "standard" eight hour workday/40-hour work week was from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a one-hour lunch break midday. Among office workers and in white collar work settings in particular, the idea of the 40-hour work week also produced the popular notion of the standard workday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., an idea that actually works out to a 35 hour work week if it includes an hour each day for lunch.

Nine to Five was also the title of a popular Hollywood movie comedy released in 1980 and starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dollie Parton and Dabney Coleman in a comic tale of three working women organizing to deal with a predatory male supervisor (Coleman).

Three Shifts

In some manufacturing and other work settings where the idea of continuous production was important, the eight-hour day also slotted easily into the work plan of three eight-hour shifts in a 24-hour day.

Vacation As Employment Benefit

The 40-hour week is also closely associated with the notion of a paid annual vacation as a fringe benefit of employment. The mathematics underlying the idea of a two-week annual vacation are relatively simple and straightforward: By universal agreement on time standards, there are 52 weeks in the earth year. When two weeks each year are set aside for vacation, the remaining 50 weeks combined with the standard of 40-hours of work each week result in a standard work-year of 2,000 hours.

The Weekend

The 40-hour work week also resulted in creation of the institutions of the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) as a time of leisure (including religious observance) and more recent in popular culture, of Wednesday as hump day - the workday that is midway between the past weekend and the up-coming one. Such diverse activities as Friday night football, Saturday sports of all kinds, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days of religious observance for various religious groups are all keyed to the institutions of the weekend.

Leisure and Recreation

Labor, Work and Action, etc.

One of the fundamental distinctions between types of paid employment associated with the forty hour week and its many variations are the distinctions between management and labor, and the related distinctions between "blue collar" and "white collar" employment. More recently, the economist Robert Reich distinguished between "ground workers" and "sky workers".

Labor in classical economic theory is usually defined as one of the three major factors of production, along with capital and land. In this formulation, labor can be contrasted with leisure, as not-work. More recently, following the suggestion of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, a number of social and political theorists have sought to refine this dichotomy and adjust it for new circumstances growing out of the forty hour week and the ideas discussed above. Arendt suggested a distinction between labor, as the activity necessary to assure survival (most importantly, prevent starvation), work as activity involving the manipulation of physical objects, and action (or social action) as activity based on interaction with others. In this important sense, the forty hour week involves a nearly infinite variety of variations of labor, work and action for most paid employment.