The Origins of the 8 Hour Workday

I promise this entire blog won’t just be one long rant against commuting… actually wait, I can’t promise that. So we are all 100% in agreement that commuting to cubicles is the dumbest and it’s exacerbated by us all driving to and from the cubical storage facilities at the same times. So why do we do it? And I don’t mean that rhetorically, I mean literally, let’s stop and think for a second about why we do this.

I would hope that our system of work is something constantly evolving, that it is based on the most recent understanding of how to maximize productivity and welfare. Obviously of course, this is not the case. Instead it is based on a psychological quirk of humans known as status quo bias. But to actually answer the question, why do I have to do my accounting in 8 hour shifts on weekdays when everyone else is doing their work, well, it’s because that’s the most efficient way to run a factory in 18th century England. Yeah, that’s right; I’m blaming my commute on the industrial revolution.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution people worked mainly on farms or in small communities. People tended to do many things for themselves, but there was some level of specialization that occurred. Let’s take for example a seamstress in a small town. She might patch up a single overcoat a day. Likely a customer comes by her house, explains what is needed and leaves the coat. The seamstress works on it as her time allows, taking breaks to tend the garden or do household chores. The next day the customer would return at their convenience and pick up the coat. She is not hyper-specialized, but is efficient enough at that one thing, sewing, to enable her to create a large enough surplus to supply the community. This surplus allows her to outsource some jobs she is not very good at like cobbling, farming, and blacksmithing. In this way she can fix all of the town’s coats and still do a lot of her own household tasks. This is something of a balanced life where a community relies heavily on each other’s skills, but certainly economic growth is limited. What I mean is she can probably patch 100 coats in a year, but it would be impossible for her patch 1,000 coats a year and use her economic surplus to travel the world.

Along comes the Industrial Revolution and with it a huge shift from community economies to factory systems. Now a factory can make 100 coats a day by mechanizing and specializing the labor force. Since you don’t need any sewing skills to make coats in a factory, they pay low wages to any rando that can feed cloth into a machine. And since the wages are low, the randos need to work a lot and don’t develop any other skills. This necessitates them purchasing all the other goods and services they need, where they used to do some of those things for themselves. Not only that, but since we can make coats so much faster and cheaper we don’t need to make them to last, so the product quality deteriorates. I’m getting off-topic, let’s start working this back to my commute.

Ok so we have specialized labor and factory systems. We’ve all heard the labor condition tales of woe, which is maybe a good cautionary tale about what happens when you have a completely unregulated market? No? Anyhow, eventually there were enough soot-covered kids and seven-fingered seamstresses to warrant some labor laws, among which were restrictions on the hours a person could work. The factory owners still wanted to keep the money printing machines going 24/7, but they had to do so within the confines of the new laws. And thus was born the 8 hour shift. You see 8 divides real nicely into 24, and so factories could remain in perpetual operation by employing 3 shifts of workers, each doing 8 hour turns.

That is why I work 8 hour days. That’s it. I’m an accountant who works autonomously, almost exclusively on a computer, and yet my schedule is dictated by what is best for an 18th century textile factory. In case you’re not sure of my stance on this, I find it infuriating.

I really don’t even have to go back that far to find fodder for my fury. Let’s revisit my boss and his 16 column ledger paper. I am a lot more efficient than any accountant was 30 years ago. Sorry boutchya prideful 60 year old CPA. Maybe I can’t add 3 numbers in my head anymore, but thanks to =sum(P:P) I will freaking toast the most prodigious 1980s accountant. So why do I work the same schedule they did? If I can do the work twice as fast why don’t I work half as much? No seriously, tell me. I have no answer, and it sort of has a huge impact on my life.

Building on why the heck do I work 8 hour days… I don’t operate a power loom at a textile factory; my work flow varies a lot throughout the year. I mean think about your own taxes. You probably spend an hour doing your taxes every year. Does that mean you do them for 5 minutes every month? No, that’s dumb. I have “slow” months in which I probably have 10 hours of work to do each week. Instead of being at the office for just those 10 hours, I’m expected to sit here doing nothing for 30 extra hours, pretending to be listening to music and not a book on tape and getting really good at minimizing my screen in a hurry (window + d homies). This is because we’re allegedly paid for our time and not our production. Meanwhile during our company’s year-end I’ll easily log 3 consecutive 60 hour weeks. This is somewhat “necessary” and it is certainly expected I be available for however long it takes. How convenient for my company that the ‘pay for time’ system is capped at 40, because I sure don’t get paid overtime. And this is just “part of the job” for accountants, we call it busy season and shake our heads like it’s an inevitable fact of life.

Well that’s annoying. I think I would be more amenable to staying beyond 40 hours when required if I could also not stay 40 when not required. But also why 40 to begin with? Stupid. Freaking. Factories.

Completing the circle. My corporate headquarters does not wish to be open 24/7. Actually it was decided somewhere along the way that businesses would all just work the day shift. So that is why we all work the same 8 hour shift concurrently. And we’re sticking with 8 hours not for any practical reason, but because it is really hard for people to change. That’s the aforementioned status quo bias. We’ll just keep on doing things the way we have been, even when it’s no longer relevant, cause you know, that’s how we’ve always done it.

So let’s all rush to make the morning whistle at the same time, driving to the same downtown area where our factories have easy access to a waterway for power and shipping (oh wait, the office you work has no need for a river? Well then why…), working the same 8 hour day and driving the same congested road back out to our houses. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. And try not to think about it.

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