The Great Resignation and the 4-day workweek: Reawakening of a forgotten dream?

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A seemingly “new” perspective on work has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to voluminous personal testimony, the “great resignation” and the move to institute a four-day workweek are offered as evidence.

Typically, press coverage on this shift has lacked perspective, assuming these developments are another novelty in a world roiling with change. The possibility of increased leisure is mentioned, often uncomfortably. But few have seriously considered leisure as an alternative to what philosopher Joseph Pieper called our “world of total work.”

What is needed is a historical perspective that might sharpen the focus and clarify possibilities and prejudices. Such a perspective might also inspire.

As a historian, I have been trying to make sense of the history of work in the United States for over 50 years, researching the topic and attempting to convey coherent accounts.

What I (and many others) continue to find is that work as we know and value it is brand new — the 40-hour week was not one of God’s commandments on Moses’s tablets. Until the modern era, the “work ethic” was not the foundation of morality.

On the contrary, through most of human history a moral and inspiring alternative to what several theologians have called our modern work-religion flourished as the basis of culture and hope for the future.

As sociologist Max Weber and other historians have thoroughly documented, that alternative dates back to the classical antiquity. However, my focus has always been on this nation and its hopes and aspirations — on the “forgotten American dream.”

For over a century, working hours in the U.S. were reduced — cut virtually in half. Shorter hours were the issue that inspired the labor movement, but the process was initiated and sustained by ordinary people. Government policy played a role. But the work reductions occurred largely in the labor market, the result of a myriad of individual choices.

For over a century, most people agreed that shorter hours were a good thing and, with higher wages, the definition of progress and acted on that belief.

Understanding that work was an instrumental virtue, leading to better things, articulate Americans welcomed shorter hours because they might allow citizens to gradually realize the best of their humanity, freely, outside the new capital and labor markets.

This was the original American dream — hard work’s reward was increasing freedom to become more fully a human being.

I have attempted to catalogue some of the best examples of this now largely forgotten dream — a dream that transcended class and our other divisions.

Johnathan Edwards, the fiery puritan preacher, expected machines to free people from work to facilitate the coming of the kingdom of God — that would become our primary business.

Agreeing with Thomas Jefferson that the pursuit of happiness was “evidently the ultimate end of political society,” Benjamin Franklin wrote that a six-hour workday was a rational option even in his day because it allowed ample time for “leisure and happiness.”

At the beginning of the labor movement, leader of the Philadelphia Working Man’s Party William Heighton called for the progressive shortening of work hours, down to “its lowest terms,” to provide workers opportunities for the “cultivation of the mind and for self-improvement.”

In an 1845 op-ed, Secretary of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) Huldah Stone justified her union’s 10-hour demands because shorter hours would provide Lowell, Mass. workers more time for family and community, to organize and work for justice, for beauty, education and the things of the mind.

Watching a steam plow, President Abraham Lincoln predicted that technology would soon free the masses for beauty and conviviality.

Those who shared this forgotten dream often quoted Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, who describe their aspirations as “higher progress,” and with them envisioned the human spirit soring beyond the marketplace and statehouse, above consumerism, selfishness and political bickering, into ever freer realms of beauty, poetry, sharing and community.

The vision was bipartisan, shared by conservatives and businesspeople. Walter Gifford, president of AT&T, recognized that industry “has gained a new and astonishing vision” of  “a new type of civilization” in which “how to make a living becomes less important than how to live.” W.K. Kellogg, inspired by the dream, introduced a six-hour day in his cereal plants in 1930 that lasted until 1986.

The dream lasted well into the 20th century.

During the 1956 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon promised a four-day workweek as part of a rising standard of living, providing “a fuller family life.” JFK agreed.

No one predicted the end of shorter hours or the dream that sustained it. John Maynard Keynes, the most famous economist of the 20th century, predicted that by the 1980s “three hours a day [would be] quite enough.” He followed this prediction with his own version of the forgotten dream noting, “I see us free … to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue.”

Obviously, the shorter hour process ended. The dream languishes. Today, Keynes’ three-hour day sounds a little hair-brained.

Understanding why this happened has been a life-long ambition for me. The reasons are several and complex. One thing stands out, however — a revolution in our beliefs and expectations about work and leisure. Work has become an end in itself. Now, work is for more work; leisure suspect.

Since the mid-20th century, the world of total work, seemingly with no option, has ruled.

But as Keynes and JFK observed, as long as productivity increases, shorter hours remain a realistic alternative. Perhaps the new perspective engendered by the pandemic will rekindle the old debates about work and expectations about leisure. Keynes predicted that it was only a matter of time.

The one necessary precondition for the restarting of shorter hours is a recovery of two of Keynes’ sure and certain principles — a return to the traditional view that work is an instrumental virtue and a restoration of the dream that expanding free time might enrich our lives in a myriad of humane and moral ways.

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Ph.D., is an American historian and a professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Health and Human Physiology. He previously served as chair of leisure studies. He is a member of the Academy of Leisure Sciences and past co-director of the Society for the Reduction of Human Labor.

Tags 4-day work week Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt COVID-19 economy labor movement Pandemic work-life balance

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