August 11

Work-Life Balance Amid The Slow Fade of the Eight-Hour-Workday

The challenge of work-life balance is without question one of the most significant struggles faced by modern man. Stephen Covey.

In 1930, as part of his Essays in Persuasion, one of the world’s most celebrated economists, John Maynard Keynes, tried to spread optimism during what was undeniably one of the most troubling times in modern history—the Great Depression.

In his essay on the Economic possibilities for our grandchildren, Keynes predicted that worldwide economic stability was on the horizon (just a century away, in comparison the 2000+ years of recorded human history) and that, as a species, we were on the verge of a fifteen-hour-workweek. And he reckoned that the biggest problem then would not be one of economics or making ends meet. Rather, it would be the problem of not knowing how to spend the abundance of leisure time we’d have at our disposal.

Thus, for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well. Keynes.

Suffice to say, we’re nowhere near Keynes’ prediction. A significant proportion of the world’s population is still grappling with figuring out how to meet basic necessities. And the lucky ones who don’t have to worry about basic economics seem to be caught on a hedonic treadmill.

Work-life balance i.e., seeking the equilibrium between our professional responsibilities and personal life hasn’t always been a major issue for humankind, because, for the most part, the majority of the world’s working class was too busy trying to eke out a living.

In fact, up until the 19th century, the length of the average workweek for the working class was about seventy hours. Leisure, it seemed, was a luxury reserved for the wealthy—a trend that only recently seems to be reversing, but more on this later.

One of the key selling points of the industrial revolution was that industrialization and technology would make jobs easier, which in turn would mean an increase in leisure time across the population. But with people working an estimated 68-70 hours a week, and many working till the very end of their lives, the situation became untenable and directly contributed to the rise of the labor movement in America in the latter half of the 1800s culminating in a nationwide strike on May 1, 1886.

On that day, hundreds of thousands of American workers nationwide went on strike, demanding an eight-hour work-day. Their slogan was, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” the chorus of the song Eight Hours written by I. G. Blanchard.

Like with all major changes, the concept of the eight-hour workday was met with a lot of resistance. Eventually though (well into the 20th century,) the eight-hour-workday became standard and soon the familiar five-days-a-week, forty-hour workweek became the norm for corporate America. That is, until the tech revolution: the advent of computers and networking resulted in a dissolution of the boundaries between work and leisure when it threatened the very foundations of what constituted the standard workweek, a situation exacerbated more recently by the social distancing rules of the pandemic and the rise of remote work.

According to a 2022 McKinsey Ipsos survey, 58% of Americans reported that they have the opportunity to work remotely at least once a week. And a whopping 87 percent of people across demographics, occupations and geographies indicated that if they have the chance to work flexibly, they’ll take it. The survey referred to this as a “tectonic shift in where, when, and how Americans want to work and are working.”

In a more recent 2023 survey, 70% of respondents ranked work-life balance as the most important feature in a new job—ahead of compensation, learning and growth opportunities, office culture, and perks and benefits. And 83% of respondents said they’d take a slightly lower-paying job in order to receive measurably better work-life balance.

Of course, I’m overgeneralizing here—some industries and occupations are not-conducive to flex-schedule arrangements and still rely on the traditional eight-hour-workday. A good portion of us, though, seem to no longer favor the traditional, hard-fought-for eight-hour-workday, instead preferring an amorphous schedule that makes it hard to distinguish between personal and work time.

We want to fit in our workouts before work, or walk our pets Coco and Buddy a few times a day. We hope to pick up and drop off kids to and from school and take them to soccer and gym practices. And we prefer relaxing sit-down family dinners without having to worry about rush-hour traffic or extensive work commutes. And in exchange, we readily go back to work on our screens late at night to wrap up work left undone during the day.

But unstructured days, as most people are finding out, can have negative ramifications as well. As cultural historian Fred Turner explains in this well-researched  piece in the NY Times magazine,

Cellphones and laptops have made it impossible for many people to wall off eight hours of the day for paid labor and another eight for everything else, and they threaten to return all of us to an era of nonstop, under-compensated labor. 

Take creative fields, for instance. It’s hard to imagine creative fields conforming to any sort of time-bound schedules, because after all, most of us don’t think of creativity as a switch that can be turned on at 9 a.m. and off at 5 p.m. But that doesn’t mean, creatives don’t feel the need for work-life balance.

A study published in 2022 reiterated the notion that without adequate work-life-balance, creativity will suffer too. In the words of Chief strategy officer of the ad-agency TBWA and co-author of the study, Guerrier,

As an industry, we have a tendency to use creativity as an excuse, as if working in a creative field was reward enough to forego such mundane notions as annual reviews, career paths, functioning processes and fair pay.

And then, there is this whole other extreme that journalist Derek Thompson discussed in his 2019 article in The Atlantic about a new religion taking over the educated elite. He called it Workism.

Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centerpiece of oneʼs identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

The article explains how the rich are now sacrificing leisure to work longer compared to the middle class and working poor, who, for the most part, still work out of necessity. That’s because the concept of work for the rich has now become intertwined with one’s very identity, a far cry from when work used to just be a way to meet financial needs.

That the educated elite are overworked while the poor have more leisure time is a phenomenon that defies economic logic and stands in sharp contrast to most of modern history when the rich had seemingly endless leisure time while the serfs and peasants toiled their life away in service.

In the end, here is the takeaway: The notion of finding the meaning of life in work is obviously misguided, but the real danger in not intentionally delineating work and leisure is in its consequences: frustration, burnout, and of course deep unhappiness. As the saying goes, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

So, it’s up to us to figure out how to create that balance again so we don’t undo the hard-fought battles of those who preceded us and to find hours in the day for “what we will.” Or, in Keynes’ words, let’s encourage and experiment in the “arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.”

Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life. Dolly Parton.



{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Get a FREE detailed step by step guide to build a practical to-do list to achieve all your life goals. 
You'll also get weekly actionable tips based on science for a healthy, productive and happy life!