The Myth of the 8-Hour Workday

Monday, January 06, 2014

Competition in business concept with running businesspeople Technology has made the eight-hour workday much longer. (Shutterstock)

On January 5, 1914, the Ford Motor Company announced its intention to implement the eight-hour workday, for which Ford employees would be paid $5.00 a day. 

One hundred years later, Lizabeth Cohen, professor of American Studies at Harvard University and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, reflects on Ford's intentions and the company's impact. While the company's policies may seem benevolent today, Cohen explains that in reality, Ford implemented the eight-hour/$5.00 day to grow the company's bottom line. 

Today, for many Americans, working just eight hours a day seems like a dream come true.

Thanks to globalization, smartphones and increasing competition, most of us work much more than eight hours a day, rising early for meetings with colleagues half a world away or burning the midnight oil to meet demanding deadlines.

Pamela Hinds is a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, where she also co-directs the Center for Work, Technology and Organization. She examines how technology is transforming the workplace and how we balance work and life at home. 


Lizabeth Cohen and Pamela Hinds

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [23]

Labor has become a struggle between Spartans and Romans. The 300 Spartans who died fighting the Persians were bred and trained to be tougher than their rivals, including the more educated Athenians, and to efficiently enslave prisoners including the helots. Romans recognized that soldiers get tired and how to rotate them to exhaust their enemies; their initially high birth rates forced the question of how best to use their numbers.

Among the workers' goals for the eight-hour days was time to organize, time that would later be co-opted for recreation.

At the start of the Cold War, eight-hour days made sense for factories to get three shifts producing around the clock; the Fifties are over.

In the rest of the First World like 2004 France, the goal is effectiveness within an eight-hour shift, rather than extending hours with management titles in name only.

We are going back to the twelve-to-sixteen-hour days on the family farm, which at least had long meal breaks and some autonomy, but on corporate rules.

When then-President George W. Bush told a single mother it was uniquely American to hold three jobs, he was wrong; Argentina had a 3-17-2005 Marketplace story!

Doctors and others are still working thirty-hour shifts even though being awake for twenty-four hours make you effectively drunk. Why are teachers on 12-hour shifts?

American workers deserve to be rewarded for their eight-hour productivity, not punished with low real wages and more work than before. Make all workers full-time?

Jan. 08 2014 09:46 AM
tom LI

One issue not brought up yet - the +/- 30 year war on labor! Not just Union busting (thank you Mr. Reagan, who started the ball down hill) but an overall war on the average Joe/Jane workers. Employee protection laws being manipulated to create hostile and look over your shoulder all day environments. Abuse of "At will" rules. Loosening up of regulations that allowed for the nice trick of hiring people as salaried (but not managerial) and telling them they're expected to put in a min of 45/hrs a week. Then comes the once a month, then twice a month weekend day requirements...and so on and so on...till soon enough the workplace is a place run thru fear! Fear of the next person/s being interviewed and offered less and less for the same job. Fear of being written up over nonsense by an over-eager, immature, easily offended under-trained Management. Human Resource people who cheat and tattle on employees who think the companies "closed door" grievance policy is real! HR staffers who lack any real HR skills, but are nothing but Health Insurance and hours-worked paper-pushers.

Labor in the US has been under attack for a long time now, and most of the protections hard-fought and won by our parents (WW2 generation, etc)- are nearly all gone.

Jan. 07 2014 04:41 PM
tom LI

One of the biggest causes of longer than normal days in most businesses is managerial. Managers who dont know how to manage slow everything down, and add minutes and hours to the end of most people's day. Managers who dont know what work-flow is, interrupt with last-minute "must be done to save my (the managers) butt" tasks, generally poor people skills, or they are too young for the job at hand. (young as in immature and inexperienced, not necessarily age)

The causes of these problems is usually due to the near lack of true training and mentoring in most workplaces these days. People are hired then tossed out on the field and expected to "run" like a seasoned pro. Ambitious people rise thru the ranks and rarely think to bring others along with them - not as pals to Yes them, but as real members of a real team. And that's because most of them were not brought up by their managers.

Then there's the lack of real and practical work-day goals and metrics for the average worker to adhere to, or measure their progress. Again this is a managerial flaw, when everyday is a new day, and to be reacted to like yesterday didn't set any precedents.

IMO, one of the biggest obstacles to the US economy and the overall workplace Environment becoming more modernized and focused on pursuing real progress is our knee-jerk adherence to the old school workplace hierarchy. For the most part many companies (75%, in most industries, especially retail and services) could erase their middle level management and barely feel a thing - other than a real rise in productivity and in turn profits.

Jan. 07 2014 04:22 PM

Interesting story. Loved the idea that Ford not only dictated what happened in the workplace, but also dictated what happened in his employees' lives away from work. Of such things are unions born, and Ford was the last of the Big Three to sign a contract with the UAW.

And the history of the 8 hour day in America...from my understanding of history...dates back to May 1, 1886 national protest for the 8-hr. day. The idea of the protest to support the 8 hour day was initiated by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions...which later became the American Federation of Labor. The 1886 protests in Chicago are tied to the Haymarket Massacre...which led to May 1 being "labor day" in nearly every country on earth save the U.S. and Canada.

And let's be clear that Henry Ford didn't pay folks $5/day to help his employees purchase the product they produced. That is an urban myth. As was emphasized in your story, Ford said it was a very shrewd business decision to REDUCE the cost of production. Not only did turn over dramatically drop, but Ford was able to attract the best and brightest auto assemblers from all of his competitors in Detroit.

Jan. 07 2014 04:19 PM
tom LI

Regarding the interview with the woman who ran her own PR firm. FYI, you are not actually in the PR biz. But a high priced baby-sitting business. Its a constructed business, that for the most part involves clients who are extremely immature (too often into their 50's!) client couldn't get a real job (or even do the job of the PR agent!) if their life depended on it, because they have to be a Celebrity, and currently involves so many faux celebrities that the PR biz if swamped with dead-end clients.

I recently had the joy of sitting around with some older PR pros and listening to them tell war stories...and their general consensus was the business had gone south in doing actual PR work over baby-sitting adult-children. (mostly do to the rise of Reality TV faux-celebrity circuits)

Any one who is a real professional and really cares about making it in the Entertainment industry, or move from similar industries (sports for example) dont need PR people to sit on them and make sure they make it to their appearances. They approach it like they did any job, as work! A four-letter word that seems out of fashion these days...

Jan. 07 2014 04:04 PM
Renee from Montclair, N.J.

I would have liked to hear from people who weren't so crazy about their jobs. I work as a supervisor in a customer service/technology business. I work my forty hours in four ten hour days. I'm paid hourly and there is nothing fun in more or higher stressed hours. I feel many people are being taken advantage of!

Jan. 07 2014 03:35 PM

Just a quick note that Henry Ford was not the originator of the 8-hour workday. It's something that was campaigned for almost 100 years earlier during the working rights movement in Australia.

Jan. 07 2014 03:25 PM
Chuck from Texas

My experience has been that there is a substantial deviation between the time people are "at work" and the time most people "work". Office workers often fail to exclude from their "work hours" time they spend surfing the web, talking to family and coworkers about personal matters, smoke breaks, meal breaks, coffee breaks, etc. When I billed my time by the tenth of an hour, I was surprised by how these "minor" diversions added up during the course of each day. For some, eight hours working the factory line is equivalent to nine or more hours working in an office.

Jan. 07 2014 02:01 PM
Kim from Seattle

Thanks John for commenting on the work day of teachers and describing so accurately the complexity and breadth of the responsibilities. In my experience both as a teacher and a mentor for new teachers, it is typical for teacher to work between a 60 and 80 hours work week on a consistent basis.

Jan. 07 2014 12:34 PM
John from NJ

I am a high school teacher and spend 9 hours Monday through Friday in my school. I also spend 2 hours a day getting to and from work. Upon arriving at home, I usually spend another 3 hours working on lesson plans, creating assessments, or grading each evening, and then put in at least 10-12 hours each weekend working as well (mostly on researching my content area and writing lesson plans). I am, half-jokingly, assembling a list with another faculty member in my building of all the other ways I could describe the job I do in a given day. Trust me, standing in front of a classroom is only a minor part of the profession. Some of these descriptions are:
- statistician (teachers now have to meet high standards of managing data on their students in the state of NJ),
- case manager (I have a number of students with learning disabilities and work often with their parents and other school professionals to make sure their needs are being met. everything needs to be documented to protect myself and the school from all liability),
- assessment specialist (teachers now have to reshape their teaching and assessments to meet the requirements of the common core curriculum standards which have different demands than traditional forms of teaching as seen in the U.S.)
- educational technology specialist (in any given day, teachers use a range of tools: hardware and software to enhance the effectiveness of our instruction. I have at least a dozen logins for

I find the public's criticism of school teachers to be particularly egregious when I know that people such as myself are working this hard to just meet the bare minimum set of expectations that are thrust upon us. This state of affairs has re-politicized me, and I believe that teachers urgently need to gain a stake in shaping the national conversation over the future of our public schools. With exhausted teachers, especially exhausted teachers who do not get respect from politicians and policy-makers and those who elect them to office, and who are paid a pittance compared to those in the private sector (I make about $700 / week which does not go very far in NJ), the bottom is going to fall out soon enough.

I can understand the 8-hour workday might not be in the cards for an effective teacher, but there should be a deep re-thinking on how to establish a more sustainable public education system than the one that currently exists.

Jan. 06 2014 06:13 PM
Jim from Spokane

Liked your story - shows the diversity of what we all do so well and that the workplace is in a continuing state of flux.
GuiIt withstanding I have to admit that as good as the story was, I really enjoyed the bumper music by my all time favorite rock group, The Guess Who! Bus Rider.

Jan. 06 2014 04:07 PM
Arusha Baker from Brooklyn, New York

I work in film and TV. A 'standard' work day is 12 hours. But in my department, the ADs and PAs usually work 14,15, or even 16 hours a day, 5 days a week. Sometimes you get graced with a short day - 10 hours or less. but that is rare. We are trying to get people to shoot no longer than 12 hours each day, no matter what. But that's a long battle that will take time to change.

Jan. 06 2014 04:03 PM
Bridgitte Rivers from Sacramento, CA

I just wanted to present a correction regarding the 8 hour day and I hope John will make it on the air. Henry Ford did not give "us" the 8 hour day, American labor and the labor union struggled and in some cases died in order to negotiate the 40 hour work week with the owners of capital. Yes, Henry Ford had 8 hour days in his factories, but only because his labor fought for it and used the tool of collective bargaining to gain it. Please don't rob the working man and woman of their history and give yet another piece of our history to the 1%.

Jan. 06 2014 03:55 PM
Emily from Oakland, California

Life has changed so much from 100 years ago. People have longer commutes, and there are laws forcing employees to work long hours (those 15+ hour days employees had to work before the 40 hour week laws) As long as you're being paid, you have to work. WIth longer commutes and obesity a huge issue in the US, people need to be working *less* to have time to exercise, have healthy lunches, and shorter commutes to spend time with family and friends. Current US laws are turning employees more and more into mice on a wheel than people happy and productive in their lives, living healthily and forming meaningful relationships outside of work.

Jan. 06 2014 03:47 PM

I'm with, Jeff from Whidbey Is., with a home that was built mostly by family hands in the 1970s. It's about tripled in value since the 70s and along with savings is fair bit of retirement.

Now, I'm semi-retired for the 5th or 6th time, and work 10 hours a week at a hotel, and plant flowers in the gardens around the hotel in the summer so my hours go up. If I travel I can get a room for $29-$39 per night anywhere in the USA with that brand.

Retiring often suited me since having children, but before children, hospital duties dictated an 8 hr day, & being on call twice a week; after 5 years of that I went to banking, 9 to 5. After that I worked for an elementary school, and had summers off.

My husband is a computer analyst, and retired at 65. He had worked as a consultant while our boys were younger, but we didn't need the money, he just needed to feel as if he was stacking up money for old age.

Are we/ourselves driven to work, or work because employers are driving us?

Jan. 06 2014 03:28 PM
C.A. from NYC

I work for a unit of City university in midtown where the theme is the labor movement and labor right. But they won't give me sick days.

Jan. 06 2014 02:36 PM

The last interview for this piece does not reflect the real view of what the eight hour work day for the majority of the middle class. Especially the part when she was asked about coroporations listening and recording all conversations amoung their employees. With all the high technology that is available, at my job they have made it aware to everyone anything we say at work can be held against us.

In addition, when it comes to getting overtime, we have to get it pre-approved. I am also a contractor and if I work on a holiday instead of getting overtime I have to clock it in as regular hours. This is because on holidays they are not forty-hour weeks so I can't not claim overtime. If it snows, instead of having the option to work from home (due to that I am a contractor) I have to call out of work. I do not have any personal/vacation days, so it goes unpaid.

Overall, I believe the eight-hour day needs some adjustments. Corporations have munipulated the time frame to work towards their benefits and this needs some type of recognition. Not everyone loves their jobs and coporations need to adjust not only to their consumers but to their employees as well.

Jan. 06 2014 02:14 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"The Eight Hour Work Day: Twice A Day," is the title for many of us nowadays, as many of us have two jobs in order to survive.

At first, I thought the title of the segment was,"The Eight Hour Work Week." I thought the age of robots doing our work for us, was upon us.

Jan. 06 2014 01:02 PM
Jeff on Whidbey from Northwest

We live on a large island near Seattle. I work for a large aerospace company as a contractor when needed. My wife works full-time for the same company (benefits and pension). I need to show up, she works from the home office. She has the usual salaried, 40-hour work week with sick leave, vacation and the other "normalities" of the work-place that seem to be going away. I get paid by the hour and that's it. But that's only one of my two jobs. I have always worked on the house that we live in. The last one I built. It has been going on for 10 years (large) and will soon give me my other paycheck. I work 6 hours, 6 to 7 days a week. I hope to be fairly well compensated for the work done upon the sale of the house. In fact, the sale will represent a large part of our retirement savings.

Jan. 06 2014 12:58 PM
Jerrold Richards from Lyle, Washington

Oh sorry, I forgot to put in my main point below.

Wherever I happen to be, my home office, a coffee shop, at the client office, there is usually a clear distinction between billable time and other time. Clients need to be trained, and it is best to do this early with a new client. They'll send an e--mail saying, oh, could just do this little thing. I e-mail back saying sure, but keep in mind there will be a 0.7 hour charge on your monthly bill for this little thing.

I highly recommend every employee everywhere get this concept firmly in mind, and then over time as possible ask, nudge, force employees to pay for all, repeat all, work time, wherever it may be happening. More and more the salary concept is looking like one of the great rip-offs of all time.

Jan. 06 2014 12:53 PM
Jerrold Richards from Lyle, Washington

I do contract bookkeeping for small- to mid-sized non-profit organizations in the Portland Oregon area. I bill by the hour. If I work, I get money so I can buy food. Food good. Me like food. Me work.

Fortunately, I like my clients. Good folks, good working conditions, good written missions that those in the organization really do care about. All that said, however, it is still feels like work.

Jan. 06 2014 12:45 PM
kristen from south carolina

The opportunity to pursue the purpose in my job is continually being undercut by the higher-ups calling for us to do more with less. Maybe the boxes get checked off buy the quality and meaningfulness suffer

Jan. 06 2014 09:54 AM

Practically everyone I know works longer than an 8 hr day - carpenters, electricians, chefs, teachers, college professors, farmers, doctors and nurses... and not because of modern technology - just because it take a lot of time to get the job done. When one adds in travel time to and from work, most have a long, long day.

Jan. 06 2014 09:29 AM

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