In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that standards of living would at least quadruple over the next 100 years, as compound interest and technological innovation allowed mankind to overcome the struggle for survival.
He made that prediction in the midst of the Great Depression, and without the benefit of modern growth theories, but he basically got it right. In more economically developed countries at least, living standards have actually increased by a bigger factor, and starvation has been eradicated.
Yet he also predicted that people would be working just 15 hours per week by now and that our biggest problem would be not knowing what to do with all our free time.
“For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” Keynes wrote in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” “It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
Instead of fretting over how best to enjoy an abundance of leisure, Americans work roughly the same number of hours they did in the 1930s: around 40 per week. We got the higher living standards Keynes predicted, so what happened to the free time?
The simple answer is that we boofed it. The 40-hour workweek has so entrenched itself in our culture, we’ve forgotten the dream entirely. Meanwhile, we may even be losing our grip on some of our hard-earned, well-established holidays, like Thanksgiving as retailers increasingly force people to work that day to get a jump on the Black Friday rush.
But we can fix this mistake. We can take a stand. We can not only reclaim Thanksgiving; we can extend every weekend to three days.
Taking Back Our Time
The average U.S. worker put in 1,786 hours of labor in 2018, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — placing in the top third of the 36 OECD countries.
If you look at nations with similar levels of economic growth, the U.S. is a ridiculous outlier. In a recent report, the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, analyzed the correlation between GDP and hours of labor. If America followed the trend of other OECD nations, we’d work about 33 fewer days each year.
Fifty years ago, people in Western European nations worked about the same as people in the U.S. But our counterparts there have prioritized time off through requirements that employers provide paid vacation and paid leave for illness or childbirth, as well as shorter hours and more holidays.
The U.S. is the only advanced economy that doesn’t require any paid vacations or parental leave.
The average German worker worked 1,363 hours last year. That’s about 52 fewer workdays than the average American — or an extra 10 weeks off.
Excessive work can impair your physical health, your family’s happiness, and maybe even your effectiveness on the job, which might be why workers in Germany and some of the other countries with lower work hours have higher levels of productivity than those in the United States.
Catching up to Germany might be too much to ask, but People’s Policy Project offered a modest proposal: The U.S. could add five new official holidays, starting with new ones in the four months that currently have none: March, April, June and August.
Congress hasn’t enacted a new federal holiday since establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Building on PPP’s report, here are some suggestions for those sad no-holiday months:
Daylight Saving Day (March) ― the first Monday after the clocks change, so we can all figure out what time it is.
Tax Day (April) ― Make April 15 a relax day.
Juneteenth (June) ― Obviously, commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. on June 19 would be good.
American Family Day (August) ― In 1977, Arizona chose the first Sunday in August to recognize the importance of families spending time together. (Let’s adopt that idea, but switch it to the first Monday.)
We’ve also got to protect the holidays we already have. They are extremely vulnerable.
The federal government recognizes 10 holidays each year (plus Inauguration Day every four years). Federal workers get these days off, and many private employers follow the government’s lead. But because there’s no actual requirement that private employers do so, they don’t always.
Take Presidents’ Day. It is actually called George Washington’s Birthday, but when the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 moved it from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February ― so that people could enjoy longer weekends ― the observance lost both its fixed date and its historical moorings. Advertisers essentially claimed the day for themselves, and employers don’t respect it. Only one-quarter of all workers got that day off last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Veterans Day, on the other hand, has a fixed date, but that still hasn’t saved it. Only 19% of workers get the day off.
Thanksgiving is supposed to be sacred. But retail stores are trying to take it over it by extending “Black Friday” earlier and earlier into Thanksgiving Day, yanking workers away from their families in the process. Target first opened at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving in 2012, and this year it will open at 6 p.m. Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S., has always kept its supercenters open on Thanksgiving ― and has been moving its stampede-causing Black Friday promotions earlier and earlier. This year, they’ll start at 6 p.m.
Congress could do something about Black Friday encroachment by requiring time-and-a-half pay for holiday labor. That’s how the Fair Labor Standards Act discourages overtime work for large employers, thereby enforcing the 40-hour week. (Another method: Three states restrict commerce on Thanksgiving via so-called “blue laws” that were originally drafted to encourage people to go to church on Sundays and holidays.) And Congress could also make the day after Thanksgiving another national holiday; 43% of workers have the day off already.
There’s some precedent for fussing with Thanksgiving. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to move the date up to the third Thursday of November in 1939 at the behest of businesses who wanted more time for Christmas shopping. Everyone hated “Franksgiving” so much that two years later, Congress passed a resolution that put it on the fourth Thursday of November.
We need to channel some of that Franksgiving rage into Black Friday Encroachment rage.
The Long History of Shorter Hours
Keynes had a good reason to think people would work shorter hours in the future. The average workweek shortened from around 60 hours when he was born, in 1883, to fewer than 50 hours by the time of his essay. Workers, wanting more time off, went on strike constantly.
The shorter hours movement dominated the economic conversation in the United States for more than 100 years, according to historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa who has written multiple books on the subject.
Workers demanded the 10-hour day in the early 1800s, seeking to escape exploitative industrial labor conditions. After the Civil War, they demanded eight hours, high-mindedly arguing that they needed time to better themselves through recreation and education.
Labor unions also argued that reducing work hours would empower workers by forcing companies to hire more people, since they’d need more people working the shorter shifts. With fewer workers unemployed, desperate and willing to take jobs at lower pay, the bargaining position of laborers in general would improve.
Business owners fought back, often with local police forces and national guardsmen on their side. People got killed, most famously during an 1886 general strike for the eight-hour day in Chicago. After a bomb went off at a protest in a public square, police shot several demonstrators, then rounded up movement leaders in a crackdown that saw several people accused of anarchism and sentenced to death. The “Haymarket Affair,” as it’s known, is internationally observed as May Day around the world.
In the early 1900s, the American Federation of Labor shifted to a more business-friendly argument ― that shorter hours would increase productivity. Better technology allowed workers to produce more per hour, and the improved output could pay off as higher wages, shorter hours or both.
“Instead of arguing that shorter hours would drive up wages, labor maintained that industrial efficiency made both shorter hours and higher wages possible,” Hunnicutt wrote in his 2013 book “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.”
That view still prevails today, and economists estimate that workers took a smaller and smaller share of their productivity gains as increased leisure, opting instead for higher wages, from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s.
But weekends didn’t come about thanks only to economics. Hours came down gradually thanks to constant agitation and piecemeal policy changes in cities and states.
That movement really hit the big time during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, Congress nearly passed legislation supporting a six-hour workday. Wanting to alleviate the misery of the Great Depression while still playing nice with big business, FDR threw his support behind other reforms. Instead of a 30-hour week, we got the 40-hour week plus retirement insurance, unemployment benefits and child labor laws ― and a promise that the government would support “full employment” by encouraging economic growth.
In the 1940s, we accidentally created an obstacle to shorter hours: the employer-based national health insurance system. Firms offered insurance as a way around wartime price controls, and then Congress codified a tax exemption for the health benefits that became one of the biggest tax expenditures on the books. Insurance is now a huge fixed cost per worker, and a key reason why firms may be reluctant to consider employees full-time if they work fewer than 40 hours.
And that’s that. We were working about 40 hours a week in the 1930s, and we’re working about 40 hours a week today, while Congress fusses over growth and our international peers take more family leave and vacations.
Shorter Hours And Today’s Politics
I know my dream of a permanent three-day weekend might sound weird to the average American. The concept is so foreign here that asking even the politician you think is most likely to be sympathetic to the idea ends with them looking at you like you’re a space alien.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is a staunch worker advocate who recently published a book titled “Desk 88,” a paean to past liberal senators who wrote legendary legislation from the same Senate desk where Brown now sits. One of them, Hugo Black (D-Ala.), was the chief sponsor of the bill creating a 30-hour week, which passed the Senate in 1933 but stalled after that.
I walked up to Brown in the Capitol the other day and asked how he felt about creating more holidays and reducing the hours of labor. He answered diplomatically but seemed skeptical of the question.
“I think that I would start with we need stronger unions and more organized workplaces that people can bargain from our days off,” Brown said. “I guess I hadn’t thought through whether government should just decree more days off.”
In a follow-up statement from his office, Brown said employers should give their workers “reasonable hours and advance notice of schedules,” which has long been a Democratic priority.
Nobody has introduced legislation to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to shorten the workweek since the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) pitched a 35-hour week in 1979. The only new holiday Democrats are pushing is Election Day, so people can vote more easily. (There’s a resolution designating March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day, but not as a federal holiday.)
It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if Democrats embraced shorter work hours through new holidays. Paid holidays already cost employers almost 8 cents per hour for the average worker earning $36.61 hourly in pay and benefits, according to the latest data. More holidays would cost more pennies, bosses would be mad, and Republicans would call it socialism.
The technocratic counterargument is that so long as worker productivity continues to increase, workers should be able to reap the benefit without hurting employers. Say we wanted to add two new holidays next year, bringing the total annual hours worked down from 1,786 to 1,770, a reduction of about 0.9%. Labor productivity growth over the past year stood at 1.4% ― enough of an increase that there would be room for days off, higher pay and higher profits.
As it stands, most Americans, and even most Republicans, tell pollsters that they favor a paid vacation mandate. And most Americans think retail stores should stay closed on Thanksgiving. An enterprising politician could pick up this issue and run with it. Giving everyone more time off is less fanciful, and less complicated, than giving everyone $1,000 per month, as Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has proposed.
A good job can be very fulfilling, but work is not that great. And everybody loves weekends.
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