The Misadventures of Working Time in the 21st Century

Working hours were at the center of social progress in the second half of the last century. Now deregulation has become the rule, breaking up personal and family life.

The actual reduction in working time has been more fortunate than the reduction imagined almost a century ago by its celebrated supporter Lord Keynes, when he made the famous “prophecy” in a speech given in Madrid in the summer of 1930. On that occasion, he argued that, over the course of a century or so, working hours would be reduced to three hours a day. His prediction entered Keynesian literature, but remained always on the sidelines of the discourse on full employment that was his principal assessment.

Today we can ask: after almost a century, what happened to his prophecy? In effect, the question and the answer are less obvious than they could appear at first sight. In the first decades of the last century, working hours were generally around 3000 hours per year. It is true that, at the beginning of the second decade of the century, Henry Ford, developing the revolutionary new work organization of Frederick Taylor, had inaugurated the groundbreaking assembly line in his Detroit automobile factory, surprisingly reducing to 8 hours the work shifts. However, this revolution was destined to remain a substantial exception in the following decades.

1.   Indeed, the revolution of the 40 hours per week started in the US in the Fifties under the Truman presidency. It was the beginning of a progressive working time revolution that characterized the second half of the century, changing not only the work organization but also the life of the workers, family life and social relationships.

However, it was not the end of the working time changes. In the following decades, also the 40-hour limit was bypassed. In Italy, in important public sectors, such as the Postal service and the health system, weekly working hours were reduced to 36 hours on the initiative of the unions. In Germany, based on the mitbestimmung, working hours were reduced to 35 hours per week in the main manufacturing industries, such as cars, steel and chemicals. Even more important was the overcoming of the 40-hour barrier with the 35 hours established in France on the initiative of Martine Aubry, the socialist Labor minister of the socialist government led by Jospin

It should be remarked that in addition to the reduction in weekly working hours, the period of paid holidays was extended to five or six weeks a year, contributing to a significant progress in individual and family life.

Nevertheless, these were not the only significant change. Through the spread of part-time, we have witnessed a second revolution. The spread of part-time paved the way for a sharp reduction in the average working time. For example, in Denmark, the Netherlands and France, annual working hours have been reduced to a weekly average of between 1400 and 1500 hours, and just around 1360 in Germany.

Indeed, it was not the realization of the Keynes prophecy based on three hours a day, which is about 900 hours a year considering that the working week at his epoch lasted six days. However, something very important has happened: working time has become in many ways a possible personal choice between different regimes for a growing number of workers.

Therefore, the biggest change was not only in the sharp contraction of working hours, but also in its possible articulation. There are, in fact, workers who have no difficulty working Longer hours according to the full-time paradigm. A doctor in a hospital, a researcher working within a collective group or a skilled manual worker may wish to work full-time as a choice consistent with his professional commitment.

On the other side, part-time work may be preferred in a number of situations: for example, the commitment in the study of many young people, the particular care of the family, or a lesser need for earnings in particular phases of life. Briefly, in the organization of modern society, individual working hours cannot be fixed at the same level for everyone for his or her entire working life.

What happened to this revolutionary combination capable of integrating production needs, particularly in the ever wider service sectors, and personal needs and preferences?

In the new scenario, part-time work has profoundly changed its initial nature of widening the normal working time patterns, in line with the demand for the production process along with possible personal choices. Over time, it has become a purely variable working time regime aimed at ensuring absolute freedom in company organization.

2.   In the United States, part-time work is generally accompanied by the minimum wage set at 7.25 dollars an hour about 10 years ago, which now corresponds to about 6 dollars. There have also states where it is below the national legal level.
However, most states have a higher level with an average of around 12 dollars an hour  - a rate that unions and Democrats are asking for to rise to $ 15 an hour.

 In any case, the effective weekly or monthly income is influenced not only by the low wage level but also by the variability of working time, which can change at short notice in relation to company decision.  Due to low pay and job uncertainty, many people, especially women, have to combine two part-time jobs, sometimes three, to make ends meet. In addition, since working hours may vary, the result is the precariousness of the economic and living conditions of individuals and families.

Wallmart is a striking example of deregulation and workers exploitation. It is the largest chain of hypermarkets and department stores with around a million and a half employed in the USA – 2.200 million including many countries in the world. Its hourly wage has increased recently at 11 dollars, just after president Trump has reduced the taxes for the big companies.

As you can imagine, there are no unions within Walmart. Since the early 1960s, founder Sam Walton had a clear imperative in mind: unions had to be kept out of his supermarket chain. The commitment has been kept. After many decades of unsuccessful attempts, AFL-CIO was unable to enter the world's largest hypermarket chain.

This is not an exception, given that in the US trade unions are present only in the 7 percent of private business. So working conditions are totally in the hands of the enterprise. Walmart is an example of the deregulation of the working time standards with the parallel deregulation of wages previously guaranteed by the union’s presence and collective bargaining. It is not a case that around a half of dependent (defined "associated") workers are part time, and that there is an highest turnover in the attempt to escape a condition of working poor. So many people need to combine  two part time jobs in different enterprises to make ends meet. And since the working time can vary during the week, the result is a complete breakdown of individual and family life.

3.    We have seen in the United States the deregulation of the old working time standards with the parallel deregulation of wages previously guaranteed by law and collective bargaining. Many European countries have followed the same path. We will consider three European emblematic cases: Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherland.

In Germany, deregulation is, as can be expected, organized according to legal provisions. The reform prompted by Peter Hartz under the Schroeder government in 2003 is a meaningful case of working time deregulation. According to the Hartz laws, a new form of working time was formalized through the so-called mini-jobs, which now involve more than 7 million workers, in majority women. They are characterized by a maximum working time of 12 hours per week and 50 hours per month with a maximum salary of 480 euro per month.

The minimum wage law has been generalized. Working time can  vary from 12 to 40 hours per week with a salary calculated on the basis of the legal minimum wage corresponding to 9.35 euro per hour and 1584 euro per month in 2020. To make an example a part-time worker who works 20 hours per week will gain a net wage of 625 euro per month.

To give an idea of the depth of inequality linked to deregulation of working time, we must remember that the average gross wage for a full-time worker is around € 4000 per month in early 2020. Given that the precariousness of working time, and the relative minimum wage, affects about 15 million workers (out of 45,000 million employees), a large number of relatively poor workers are created in the top economic power in Europe

In the UK, a different representative case of working time deregulation can be observed. Here full-time and part-time have no precise borders. Part-time work is generally paid at the statutory  minimum wage, and the average part-time weekly wage is 112.20 per week, However, according to next increase, by April it will vary from £ 6 for young workers to £ 9 for workers aged 25 or over. Here finally the deregulation of working time masked by flexibility is unlimited. The last example is the invention of the almost unbelievable zero-hour working time regime.

Finally, these significant and surprising examples do not mean that flexibility should in principle be denied.. Flexibility can combine a company's production needs with a worker's needs or preferences. An advanced asset can be found within the framework of a balanced organization of flexible working time.

The case of the Netherlands offers a good record in a possible right direction. Here a large number of women, who were far from the labor market due to personal or familiar needs or preferences, entered the labor  market by choosing part-time in an increasing number, up to the impressive participation of over 70 percent of the total of the working women. The reason being the possibility of combining the job with personal and family organization. Part time has acquired the same dignity as full time. And workers are divided into equal numbers between full-time and part-time work

4.   To conclude, it is useful to come back to the beginning. Keynes had imagined the work time reduction  about to the 30 percent of the standard of his time over a run of a century or a little more. In fact, a century has not yet passed and the reduction in work time has exceeded 50 percent in relation to the standards of the first half of the xx century. And, as we have seen, in some European countries it is significantly lower.

However, it is not the main point. Keynes, consistent with his time, assumed an equal reduction for all. This was unrealistic. There are people who, during different periods of their life, choose to work a different number of hours for personal or family reasons. Therefore, average hours are likely to continue to decline even for an uninterrupted technological revolution, but personal working hours will continue to vary. Furthermore, the possibility of making a personal choice within a plurality of collectively defined schemes will be increasingly important.

Often, in Europe, the government's left parties have accepted the policy and practice of a false flexibility that masks the substantial deregulation of working hours. However, something is changing. Old social democratic parties are in crisis everywhere. A new start is possible. Working time can become the main topic for renewed left-wing parties and movements as well as for unions in Europe.

It is risky to make previsions. Nevertheless, it is certain that working time remains the benchmark of a possible future change in the progressive policy. It is now a commitment of the leftwing candidate to the US presidency, Bernie Sanders. In some European countries as recently in Spain and Ireland leftwing parties have obtained a remarkable electoral success posing themselves as governing partners. Working time should become a central issue of the leftwing parties and trade unions.

A new phase can be opened in one of the most important aspects of the individual and collective life model.

Antonio Lettieri

Editor of Insight and President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body and Advisor for European policy of Labour Minister. (

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