18 Indus. & Lab. Rel. Rev. 238 (1964-1965)
Shorter Workweek Controversy, The

handle is hein.journals/ialrr18 and id is 250 raw text is: DISCUSSION
The Shorter Workweek Controversy
THOMAS SOWELL

O vER the years, the arguments for a
shorter workweek have settled into
a pattern with a few dominant features.
A reduction in weekly hours of work is
urged on grounds that (1) there is an
historical trend to shorter hours, that
(2) shorter hours would promote greater
worker efficiency, that (3) purchasing
power would be increased, and that (4)
unemployment would be reduced by
spreading the available work. Despite the
fact that these propositions are interre-
lated, they can be separated analytically
and considered in turn.
THE TREND TO SHORTER
HOURS
It is obvious that hours today are dra-
matically shorter than they were a cen-
tury ago or a half-century ago, and if
comparison of selected end-years were
enough to establish a trend, that would
be sufficient. Many who think that a sig-
nificant trend exists credit it in large
part to union and/or governmental in-
fluence. The familiar reasoning is that
unorganized workers are helpless to make
This essay analyzes some of the major argu-
ments being advanced in favor of a reduction
of the workweek. Finding all of these wanting,
the author asserts that the labor market is capa-
ble of translating increases in productivity into
more leisure, if this is desired by workers, and
that unemployment is significantly attributable
to interferences with that market. Thomas So-
well is an economic analyst in private industry.-
EDITOR

such major institutional changes as re-
ductions in the workweek. The plausi-
bility of this is obvious. What is not so
obvious is why plausibility is so often
the test applied in labor economics.
In manufacturing, where unions and
the government exercise their largest de-
gree of control of hours (and earnings),
there has been no over-all decline of the
average workweek over the past quarter
of a century. Hours today are slightly
longer than they were in the late 1930's
when unions became a dominant force
and when the Fair Labor Standards Act
established the forty-hour week. There
might be objection to this particular
comparison, because of depression un-
deremployment. But taking the more
normal postwar period, average weekly
hours in manufacturing have not devi-
ated from forty by as much as one hour
for any year since World War II.1 The
record of other leading non-Communist
industrial nations likewise shows no
trend to shorter hours over a similar
1U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor
Statistics, Employment and Earnings, Vol. 10,
June 1963, p. 33. While there are certain short-
comings in the BLS data cited, recent cor-
rected data by Dr. Ethel B. Jones requires only
that 38.5 hours be substituted for 40 hours
to give the same results cited above. Ethel B.
Jones, New Estimates of Hours of Work Per
Week and Hourly Earnings, 1900-1957, Review
of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 45, No. 4
(November 1963), p. 375.

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