The late, great 8-hour workday

By Nathan Pensky , written on January 15, 2014

From The News Desk

Startup founders have been known to talk about “entrepreneurship as a lifestyle.” Long hours, bad food, poor job security – these are bragging rights among many tech founders. They’re building something after all. Worrying about physical well-being and mental health and wearing clothes that aren’t sweatpants can wait until after the big exit, and sometimes not even then.

Tech people will tell you that they’re not concerned much with their own personal needs to rest or to spend time away from work. But I often wonder if these founders’ employees share that zeal, or what the “always connected” lifestyle, which has become de rigeur for startup culture, means for lower-level tech employees.

Something that tech founders might not know, or maybe have forgotten, is that the 8-hour workday was once an important social reform issue for laborers. The right to work a set amount of hours per day was never granted to workers out of the goodness of their employers’ hearts, but because labor reformers organized and fought for it. Pioneering industrial workers obviously had it way harder than tech founders. But even so, they fought to change industrial working conditions so that the middle class that sprang up around the manufacturing industry would not resemble the laborers’ wasteland modern tech workers seem to wear as a badge of honor.

The “8-hour day movement” was first started in the United Kingdom during the first Industrial Revolution by labor reformer Robert Owen, who posited the motto “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” in 1817. Reform for shortening the workday was initially yoked alongside advocacy for child labor laws. While the Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the middle class and subsequently improved social conditions for ordinary people, working conditions in factories and mills, especially for children, were still horrendous. A telling statistic: infant mortality fell in Britain during the Industrial Revolution while child mortality initially maintained pre-Industrial numbers.

Real reform for industrialized society came slowly. In 1819 Britain passed the one of the first of the Factory Acts putting a 12-hour workday limit for children working in cotton mills aged 9 to 16. (Yes, you heard that right, 12-hour limit, children aged 9 to 16...) But a mandatory 10-hour workday for women and children textile workers wasn’t put into British law until 1847.


The 8-hour workday movement gained steam in America during the second Industrial Revolution, especially after the Haymarket Square protests on May 1, 1886. After violence erupted, in answer to police firing into the crowd during a previous protest, seven policemen and four civilians were killed. Eight anarchist conspirators were convicted, and four were executed. The May Day ultimatums followed on May 1, 1890, when workers went on strike under organization of the American Federation of Labor, demanding the 8-hour workday.

And yet Ford Motor Company was the first major American manufacturing concern to adopt the 8-hour workday in 1914, 28 years after the Haymarket riots. As a result, the company’s productivity, and its profits, doubled. Many companies followed suit. The 8-hour workday was adopted for railway workers with the Adamson Act of 1916 and then for other many industries with the Fair Labor Standards Act during New Deal reforms of 1937.

It’s dangerous to take “lessons” from history, yet it’s hard to deny the narrative that emerges. The arc of history was long, but ultimately some workers and reformers were able to achieve a more equitable work culture by pressuring their employers. The creation of a strong middle class improved quality of life, created the banking system, gave rise to the modern public education, and generally enabled workers to mobilize socially more so than had been possible in pre-Industrial society. But that middle class didn’t employ social mobility simply to build more and more things. Some of the workers took care as to how they built, and what that meant for their lives.

Since the “digital revolution” (we really need a better term), many entrepreneurs have adopted irregular hours. A concept sometimes cited in tech entrepreneur circles asserts that people are most productive and creative working according to Ultradian rhythms, in three-hour blocks, with a half-hour rest in between. Another popular concept, pioneered by Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known as “Flow,” describes optimal working conditions as a measure of attention.

An interesting aspect of both of these concepts is that they designate how workers are most productive, not necessarily what workers need to be healthy. It’s also interesting that the “three hour on, half hour off” strategy is expressed as a process that repeats itself cyclically rather than according to an actual schedule. The motto of the “8-hour a day” movement was “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.” This is, essentially, a schedule that takes up all 24 hours of the day, while the newer paradigm, being “work three hours, rest for half an hour, repeat,” could extend indefinitely, far beyond 8 hours at a time.

But isn’t the 8-hour day based on an arbitrary number? Perhaps. But the need for limitations on work hours has never more apparent. And it’s not just tech. According to a 2009 survey by the Harvard Business Review, 94 percent of professionals surveyed worked at least 50 hours a week or more. And the 2013 State of the American Workplace report conducted by Gallup found that up to 70 percent of the American workforce feels unengaged (read: demotivated and unsatisfied).

Acknowledgement of the importance of the 8-hour workday, or at least some sort of limitation on work time, is not some ploy for lazy people, nor even one for compassion, really. It’s a humanist argument for productivity within the boundaries of reality.


Many people will read this and scream “First World Problems!” and in a sense, they’re right. This is a dilemma that faces our highly industrialized, unfairly privileged, somewhat culturally bloated society. It’s hard to feel sorry for tech bloggers or developers who stare at a screen for 10 hours a day listening to Katy Perry on Spotify, when people with worse problems go unanswered. By the same token, the difference between the everyday experience of workers in today's tech industry and that of manual laborers working in Industrial Revolution-era factories is vast.

And yet our tech-obsessed, culturally engorged society is where we live. One of the great fallacies of the #firstworldproblems meme is the idea that solving first world problems and those in the developing world are somehow mutually exclusive. Making reasonable improvements of the everyday work experience for tech workers is both an acknowledgement of the groundwork set by Industrial-era labor reformers and an act of solidarity with social justice causes everywhere, including those much direr than this one.

The issue is especially relevant when one considers the operating alternative, being to create a culture where workers are expected to spend ungodly hours at the office, while palliating them with playroom-style campuses, where endless perks rain from the heavens -- like those widely reported on at such companies as Facebook, Zynga, and Google -- as if enjoying a nice cafeteria were any kind of substitute for getting to spend time off.

Granted, the malaise besetting tech workers is a #firstworldproblem. But if that's the case, perhaps we could come up with a #firstworldsolution that doesn't involve frivolous luxuries. If we're going to choose between #firstworldproblems and those of the developing world, it may be better to consider those whose plight is more desperate than our own. But it needn't be such an either/or proposition.

Like Industrialists before them, tech founders and entrepreneurs work long hours out of necessity, because building companies requires it. Many lower level tech workers who throw themselves into 12-hour days hope for a sliver of company equity; they are personally invested beyond what would be expected of an "employee," because they hope to share in ownership of something bigger than themselves.

But tech founders should remember that, while perhaps necessary in the short term, this is a methodology ripe for reform, not a lifestyle to be celebrated.


[Illustrations by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]