Did you know that workers in medieval times had a customary afternoon nap?
With the introduction of machines, a shift towards the digital and now artificial intelligence, the capitalist myth of reduction in working hours has only been reinforced. But how true is the myth?
The current work week comes to around 40 hours. In the 19th century, or just after the industrial revolution, when machines came into play for the manufacturing of goods for the first time.
This introduction of machines kicked off a sequence of events, birthing the modern-day capitalism model. As people had machines to do the work instead of using their hands, it could be assumed they would have to work less. Truth is, people in the 19th century worked a staggering average of 80 hours per week.
But what about before the 19th century, or rather, before the watershed that was the industrial revolution?
To an easier time with compulsory naps
Humans, like other mammals, were not about working all the time. Historians say ancient humans worked around 20 hours per week.
This working hour also came with numerous holidays. For example, the Romans had around 175 public holidays per year!
Juliet Schor, a professor of Sociology at Boston College, in an essay titled "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure", wrote that while workers during the medieval period worked around 16 hours a day, this came with many breaks.
There were intermittent halts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was also the customary afternoon nap.
The rest periods were considered as rights of labourers.
Accounting for all these, Oxford Professor James E Thorold Rogers estimated that the medieval workday was not more than eight hours.
This eight-hour workday has particular significance in the history of workers. It is what we follow, but it wasn't handed down to us.
A blood-soaked demand
As America fiercely embraced the second industrial revolution and the extended working hours that came with it, on 20 August, 1866, the newly organised National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday.
Juliet Schor believed that a worker participating in the protests that emerged over the eight-hour workday was " "simply striving to recover what his ancestor worked by four or five centuries ago."
Before that, in the wake of the American Revolution, Philadelphia carpenters organised the first strike for a shorter, ten-hour workday, which began the American working class' long struggle to reduce their work hours from the twelve-hour agricultural norm of sun up to sun down.
Over a half-century later, on 1 May, 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a national strike demanding an eight-hour workday.
Workers around the country answered the call, with one protest leading to police intervention and then deaths on both sides.
The violent nature of the protest set the movement back by a few decades.
When the Great Depression emerged, reduced work hours once again returned to the conversation.
With it came the push for the Fair Labor Standards Act – establishing an eight-hour day and forty-hour week.
Progress toward an eight-hour day was minimal until June 1933 when Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, an emergency measure taken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the economic devastation of the Great Depression.
This Act set maximum hours, minimum wages, and the right to collective bargaining. Although the Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in May 1935, the Recovery Act was soon replaced by the Wagner Act, which assured workers the right to unionise.
The 40-hour work week and the road ahead
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has said the 40-hour work week is a human construct, which was necessitated by the Industrial Revolution, but has since become quite redundant.
It said such a work week was destructive to the health and well-being of humanity.
The reality is that the average number of hours worked has gone down a little since the late 1980s.
Figures from a few years earlier showed that a full-time employee in the United States works 1,801 hours per year or 37.5 hours per week.
This is still more than their medieval counterparts.
Then comes the bigger issue of the work-life balance.
John Maynard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, predicted that by 2030, advanced economies would be wealthy enough that leisure time would characterise national lifestyles.
This is clearly not the direction the world is heading in, although a four-day work-week has been done on an experimental basis.
In the UK, the four-day work-week was trialled this year and the results were positive.
According to the BBC, among the 60-plus companies that participated in the trial, from marketing agencies to financial firms, education services to fish and chip shops, 92% of employers said they would continue with a shorter workweek following the programme – with 30% making the change permanent.
Among nearly 3,000 employees, 71% reported feeling reduced levels of burnout; there were also improvements in physical health and well-being.
But it isn't only the office work which matters.
On call, always
An expectation from employers these days is that the work day begins when you wake up till you go to sleep – sometimes it even continues mid-sleep.
In the aftermath of Covid, which led to many companies working remotely, the boundary between employer and employee has eroded for many.
Many now expect their colleagues to be on-call at any given time.
There are also more work groups in the digital sphere than ever before. While Covid has ended, these practices have become entrenched.
There are also now discussions of considering commute time to work as part of the working hour.
Working time, indeed, is a complicated discussion.
Marshall Sahlins' acclaimed anthropological work, Stone-Age Economics (Sahlins, 1972) on hunter-gatherer societies, described how concepts of both work and time were fundamentally different in the Kung hunter-gatherer society of southern Africa.
He, however, noted that the time the Kung spent at work was dramatically less than the modern Western worker. At the same time, he acknowledged that "the concept of work was something that researchers were statistically imposing on the activities of the hunter-gatherers."
Jacques Le Goff, in his classic essay on working time in mediaeval Western Europe, argued that before the 14th century, the approach to working time was fundamentally different to ours.
He wrote, "On the whole, labour time was still the time of an economy dominated by agrarian rhythms, free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity – and of a society created in the image of that economy, sober and modest, without enormous appetites, undemanding, and incapable of quantitative efforts…"
The concept of work across time and geographically had always been radically different and it remains so to some extent.
Under the latest guidelines of the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS), convened by the International Labour Organization (ILO), working time is no longer confined to hours in paid employment and includes self-employment.
It includes three elements: hours spent on an activity directly related to work (time spent working, moving between work locations, in-work training, etc.); in-between time (the inevitable interruptions to work processes that occur); and resting time (coffee breaks etc.).
It, however, does not take into account commuting time, long breaks such as meal breaks, annual leave, holidays, time spent in education or in training that is not part of the job and other reasons for not working (maternity and paternity leave, parental leave, slack in business, bad weather, etc), an article by the OECD says.
But even the ILO finds it difficult to fully define what is meant by hours, as it noted in its 1962 guidelines, "because of the wide difference among countries with respect to wage payments for holidays and other periods when no work is performed, it does not seem feasible at this time to adopt international definitions of hours paid for."
As we grapple with these sets of ideas, we can look back to our past and see what lessons and models can be derived from there.
The always-grind society isn't a one-size fits all. While we are made more anxious by which AI will eventually replace us, it's time to take stock of the advancements and technologies and figure out ways how those can make our lives better and support, not supplant, workers around the world.