Americans Work More Hours Per Week Than Most Around the World

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Apr 09, 2024

The workweek as we know it has undergone a massive transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Initially, workers faced 80 to 100-hour weeks until the labor movement’s push for better conditions led to significant changes. By 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant set a precedent with an eight-hour workday for government employees.

This momentum continued, and in 1926, Ford Motor Company instituted a five-day, 40-hour workweek for its factory workers, a move that drastically changed the industrial world. It wasn’t until 1938, however, that the Fair Labor Standards Act officially established a 40-hour workweek in the U.S., marking a significant milestone in labor rights and setting a standard that many countries would follow.

The Modern Push for Change

Fast forward to 2023, and the conversation around work hours is back in the spotlight. According to The Hill, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Mark Takano have brought forth proposals aiming to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours with no loss in pay.

Bernie Sanders speaking in to a microphone on a stage

Source: Wikimedia Commons/Pexels

This legislative push seeks to address the modern workforce’s challenges and aspirations, indicating a strong desire to adapt work structures to contemporary life’s demands and rhythms. These proposals signify a potential shift in how we view work and its place in our lives.

Global Experiments with Shorter Workweeks

The notion of reducing work hours is not uniquely American. Several countries have experimented with or fully adopted shorter workweeks. France famously transitioned to a 35-hour week in 2000, according to Brookings, while Belgium and Iceland have made recent moves to afford workers more flexibility and less time on the job (via EuroNews).

Confident businesswoman sharing information from documents in workplace

Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

These international experiments suggest a growing trend toward reevaluating work’s role in life and its impact on well-being and productivity.

The Argument for Productivity

Support for a shorter workweek is about worker welfare, as well as the bottom line. Andrew Barnes, from 4 Day Week Global, has shown through pilot programs that reducing work hours can lead to significant increases in company revenue — in the U.S. trial, companies saw a 33% revenue increase.

A woman works from home using her laptop at a desk with a calculator beside her.

Source: Windows/Unsplash

This challenges the traditional notion that more hours equals more output, suggesting that efficiency can grow with fewer working hours.

Quality of Life Improvements

The benefits of a shorter workweek extend beyond the office. According to CNBC, participants in reduced-hour trials reported getting more sleep, spending more time with family, and experiencing lower stress levels.

A young couple holds their baby while smiling at him

Source: Monkey Business Images/Canva

This holistic improvement in quality of life highlights the potential of a shorter workweek to address the contemporary challenges of work-life balance, suggesting that less can indeed be more when it comes to working hours.

The Economic Debate

Despite the potential benefits, the proposition of a shorter workweek is not without its detractors. Critics, including some Republicans, warn that reducing work hours could lead to higher inflation and layoffs (via The Hill).

An image of two construction workers moving scaffolding

Source: Freepik

Moreover, concerns have been raised about the impact on older workers, who may struggle to condense their workload into fewer hours. This opposition underscores the complexities of fundamentally changing work norms.


International Hours: The Highs and Lows

A look at working hours around the world reveals a wide range. According to the International Labour Organization, countries like Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates have workweeks exceeding 50 hours, while the Netherlands and Rwanda enjoy some of the shortest hours.

Three men and a woman at a wooden table staring at a laptop

Source: Jud Mackrill/Unsplash

The U.S. sits in the middle, with an average workweek of 38 hours. These disparities highlight the diversity of work cultures and the varying impacts of labor laws and economic conditions globally.


The Challenge of Change

Implementing a shorter workweek in the U.S. faces significant hurdles, from political opposition to economic concerns.

Two workers typing on computers in a corporate setting.

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The debate touches on deep-seated beliefs about work, productivity, and economic health, making the path to change complex and fraught with challenges. This reflects broader global debates on how best to balance work and life in the 21st century.


Benefits Beyond the Office

Businesses that have experimented with shorter workweeks report not just financial gains but also improvements in employee retention and health.

Man looks extremely frustrated while working on his laptop

Source: Freepik

Fewer sick days and longer tenures suggest that a more balanced approach to work can benefit both companies and workers, reinforcing the argument that a shift in working hours can have broad, positive effects.


A Closer Look at the U.S. Work Culture

The culture of work in the U.S. often celebrates long hours and productivity, sometimes at the cost of personal well-being.

Man clearly stressed as he is surrounded by stacks of paperwork

Source: Freepik

This cultural backdrop makes the discussion around reducing work hours particularly pertinent and potentially challenging, as it requires not just changes in policy but shifts in deeply ingrained attitudes and values about work and success.


The Future of Work

As we look toward the future, the concept of work and its integration into our lives continues to evolve. Technological advancements and changing societal values promise to further alter our work patterns.

Men and women sit around a large table in a conference room working on laptops and talking. Black chairs and black walls are seen in the background

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The ongoing discussions and experiments around reduced workweeks are part of a larger conversation about what the future of work looks like and how we can best adapt to ensure it serves both economic and human needs.


What's Next for American Workers?

As the debate over a 32-hour workweek continues in Congress and among the public, it’s clear that the conversation is about more than just hours — it’s about reimagining the role of work in our lives.

An image of a contemporary open office space taken at night. Multiple workstations with computer monitors are seen, with workers focused on their screens

Source: Israel Andrade/Unsplash

The journey toward potentially shorter workweeks in the U.S. remains uncertain, but it represents a critical moment in the broader discussion about finding balance in the modern world.