Most Americans support Andrew Yang's call for a 4-day workweek — but before any policy changes, we should understand why the 5-day, 40-hour workweek was so revolutionary

Most Americans support Andrew Yang's call for a 4-day workweek — but before any policy changes, we should understand why the 5-day, 40-hour workweek was so revolutionary
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang says the US should "seriously" consider a four-day workweek.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Former Presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang is calling for the US to adopt a four-day workweek.
  • The new labor policy has gained traction globally in recent years.
  • More Americans support adopting a four-day workweek, according to a recent survey by the Harris Poll.
  • It's also important to understand why the US adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek in the first place.

It was a long fight on the part of workers and worker unions to get the five-day, 40-hour workweek. Now, more thought leaders and lawmakers alike are calling for a new adjustment to how people work: a four-day workweek.

Leading the charge is entrepreneur and former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has consistently called for the labor-policy change.

"3-day weekends are better than 2-day weekends," he wrote in a recent tweet. "We should seriously look at 4-day workweeks. Studies show that we would be just as productive. It would create jobs at the margins and improve mental health."


America's workers seem to agree.

A recent survey from the Harris Poll found that over 80% of employees said they would be somewhat or very willing to work more hours over four days instead of working fewer over five. And 71% of those workers said they thought the switch would make them more productive.

The new work schedule has gained traction across the globe in recent years, too. In 2017, a number of companies in Japan began adopting it to promote work-life balance and to help with childcare and eldercare, HR Dive reported. Last year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he supported a parliamentary proposal to limit the work week, and lawmakers in Finland and the UK have recently proposed similar measures.


In 2018, Shake Shack adopted a four-day workweek for managers. It then reported a dramatic rise in the number of women applying for jobs, citing recouped childcare costs because they no longer had to find care for an additional day in the week, according to NPR. Earlier this year, a Washington state senator introduced a bill to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours, or by one less eight-hour work day.

If Americans truly want this change to their workweek from five days to four, it's helpful to see how the US got to the 40-hour workweek to begin with.

The history of the 40-hour workweek

August 20, 1866: A newly formed organization named the National Labor Union asked Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. Though their efforts failed, they inspired Americans across the country to support labor reform over the next few decades.


May 1, 1867: The Illinois legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hour workday. Many employers refused to cooperate, and a massive strike erupted in Chicago. That day became known as "May Day."

May 19, 1869: President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hour workday — but only for government workers. Grant's decision encouraged private-sector workers to push for the same rights.

1870s and 1880s: While the National Labor Union had dissolved, other organizations including the Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions continued to demand an eight-hour workday. Every year on May Day, strikes and demonstrations were organized to bring awareness to the issue.


May 1, 1886: Labor organizations called for a national strike in support of a shorter workday. More than 300,000 workers turned out across the country. In Chicago, demonstrators fought with police over the next few days. Many on both sides were wounded or killed in an event that's now known as the "Haymarket Affair."

1890: The US government began tracking workers' hours. The average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was a whopping 100 hours.

1906: The eight-hour workday was instituted at two major firms in the printing industry.


September 3, 1916: Congress passed the Adamson Act, a federal law that established an eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers. The Supreme Court constitutionalized the act in 1917.

September 25, 1926: Ford Motor Companies adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek.

June 25, 1938: Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited the workweek to 44 hours.


June 26, 1940: Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, limiting the workweek to 40 hours.

October 24, 1940: The Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect.

How the 40-hour workweek has evolved

Despite the long work it took to make the 40-hour workweek a reality, research shows people do continue to log longer work hours.


In a survey by tax and professional services firm EY, half of managers around the world reported logging more than 40 hours a week. In the US, a whopping 58% of managers said they worked over 40 hours a week. Presumably, some of that time is spent at home answering emails, instead of at the office.

Meanwhile, there's evidence that some Americans see working around the clock as a kind of status symbol. While many people claim to be working 60- or 80-hour workweeks, much of that time isn't very productive. In fields like finance and consulting, some workers may only be pretending to work 80-hour weeks, a recent study suggests.

The coronavirus has blurred the lines between work and personal lives even more. While millions of Americans are unemployed right now, the majority of those who are working are doing so from home amid the quarantines and lockdowns that were the results of the pandemic. Many report working longer hours, taking less breaks, and signing on at all hours of the day and night.


In general, research suggests that we can handle working 60-hour weeks for three weeks — after that, we become less productive.