As Queen of Appalachia Dolly Parton once said, “working 9 to 5” is anything but easy. Over the last century, the American workforce has accepted the 40-hour workweek as normal and expected.
Gen Z, however, has different plans. The younger generation is slowly entering the workforce, and the first item on their agenda is ditching this 40-hour tradition.
The History Of The 40-Hour Work Week
Following the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, American workers were running ragged. The late 1800s saw waves of employee strikes and the creation of labor unions as Americans fought for workers’ rights.
It wasn’t until September 1926 that Henry Ford began implementing a five-day, 40-hour workweek. Ford explained his reasoning in Ford Motor Company’s newsletter, Ford News.
“The five-day workweek will open our way to still greater posterity,” Ford wrote. “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege.”
Ford argued that workers with more free time could spend more money vacationing, shopping, and, of course, driving. Nearly 100 years later, and we are following his same cue.
Theory Of Relative Productivity
Research suggests we’re well overdue for a change. An Icelandic study found that when public sector employees reduced their weekly work time by five hours, their well-being dramatically improved.
Productivity also stayed the same or improved across most workplaces. Microsoft in Japan conducted a similar trial in 2019 that saw productivity increase by 40% in a four-day workweek.
“Forty hours isn’t some kind of a natural law,” Natalie Nagele told the Society for Human Resource Management in 2020. “Give employees space to do their work. Don’t micromanage them. Don’t harass them. They’ll get more done in four hours than eight.”
And besides knowing a thing or two as co-founder and CEO of Wildbit, Nagele has a scientifically backed point. Research shows that longer hours do not equate to higher productivity. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect.
The Pandemic Got The Ball Rolling
Changing a 95-year-old labor standard requires a major shake-up. Luckily, the COVID-19 pandemic was perfect for the job. As businesses everywhere switched to remote work and reduced hours, the 40-hour standard seemed more and more obsolete.
KCRW’s Press Play with Madeleine Brand interviewed Alex Soojung-Kim Pang addressed this in November 2020. Pang is the author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How and founder of the consultancy company Strategy and Rest.
Pang explained that outmoded processes and bad implementations have effectively “buried” the 40-hour workweek. “Lots of companies are discovering ways of moving to four-day weeks or other kinds of shorter workweeks.”
These shortened workweeks “let them be as productive while also solving really intractable problems with things like work-life balance and gender equity in the workplace,” Pang says.
Finding Balance Between Work And Home Life
So, what makes Gen Zers think they have what it takes to ditch the 40-hour week for good? Namely, it’s all about that work-life balance.
“Yes, [Gen Zers] obviously want to be successful,” said TikTok user @jazybdazy in a now-viral video. “We want to have money to afford the things we want to afford. But ultimately, we really value work-life balance and mental health.”
Millennials and Gen Zers have this in common. According to a 2020 Zapier report, more than 75% of millennials and Gen Zers say that the ability to discuss mental health openly at work is important. Moreover, they believe employers should have a mental health policy in place.
“Gen Z is a generation that is used to creating change and making an impact,” Christina Cuzverga of Handshake told PR Newswire. “It is encouraging to see these young people advocate for themselves.”
Kissing 40 Hours Goodbye
Furthermore, in May 2020, YPulse found that 61% of employed millennials worked from home during the pandemic. Over 50% of these young workers plan to continue working from home, whether or not it’s pandemic-related.
According to a recent survey from professional network Blind, a whopping 64% of employees said they would rather work permanently from home than take a $30K salary increase.
That number is even higher in a Citrix Systems report, which states that 90% of survey respondents have no interest in returning to office work full-time. More than half prefer a hybrid working model where they can work from home most or all of the time.
Clearly, young American laborers are hungry for something different. Women no longer want to choose between a career and children. We need living wages. And most importantly, we want to work without running ourselves ragged.
This country has changed its labor standards before; it is more than capable of doing it again. And if we are to take a cue from our younger colleagues (which science suggests we should), that time for change is right now.