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The Creation of the Weekend: Almost 100 Years Later

The Creation of the Weekend Almost 100 Years Later By Rachel Brown (2)

Did you know that the “two-day weekend” concept started only 97 years ago? The eight-hour workday and 40-hour week are relatively new concepts in the American labor force and worldwide.  

A more reasonable workday was first discussed during the Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) across the world as strikes broke out across Europe and later in the United States. By the 1850s, New York trade unions declared an eight-hour workday was justified and enough for any man to work.  

But 15 years later, following the Civil War, 10-12-hour workdays – seven days a week in American manufacturing plants – were still the norm.  

The 40-hour workweek was a long time coming  

There’s some deep 19th century history behind the evolution of the eight-hour workday, the five-day workweek, the full-time 40-hour workweek, and better working conditions that eventually gave way to two-day weekends. The most significant changes happened in the early 20th century.  

Here are some highlights on how these changes came to be, from labor movements to public outcry, economic factors, and governmental mandates. 

  • When the stock market crashed in 1873, the subject of a 40-hour week was approached yet again, this time by the government because of growing concern about unemployment. It was concluded that if the workweek were shorter, unemployment would be reduced. However, unconvinced business owners were uncertain about the economy as stocks were falling.  
  • In October 1884, the national Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution calling for eight hours to be a legal day of work, pushing again for manufacturing companies to shorten the workday for American workers. Outcries without solutions increased due to a lack of compromise and increasing discontent.  
  • This led to May Day of 1886 (May 1), when a general strike saw 250,000 laborers walk off their work premises across America, with the largest number in the Chicago area. It began as a peaceful protest, but due to crossing the picket line, violence began to sweep through the streets. Two days later, on May 3, four demonstrators were killed and several were hospitalized. People were grieved. Still, no resolutions were reached. 
  • In 1914, Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company took a major step in cutting its nine-hour workday to eight hours and increased pay for male factory workers to $5 per day. The policy was extended to female workers in 1916.  
  • In 1916, nearly 400,000 railway workers voted to authorize a strike if an eight-hour day was not adopted by U.S. railroads. Congress and President Woodrow Wilson stepped in and on September 2, 1916, Congress passed the Adamson Act, signed by Wilson the following day, which implemented a standard workday of eight hours for railway workers across the Unites States.  
  • In 1918, President Wilson got involved again in another industry. He appointed a federal negotiator who ordered a shorter workweek in the country’s meat packing plants, from 60 to 48 hours.  
  • In 1926, Ford Motor Company introduced another solution and this one changed the world. They implemented a five-day, 40-hour week. The new structure allowed Ford factories to operate 24/7 with three eight-hour shifts. Before long, manufacturers in the United States and all over the world followed Ford’s lead.  
  • Finally, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the American Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal, a series of programs designed to help move the United States out of the Great Depression. The Act codified a 44-hour workweek, and two years later, the limit was adjusted to a 40-hour week. Any work performed beyond that required employers to pay workers overtime.  

We’re still scrutinizing the workweek  

If we learned anything from history, we know that growth requires innovation and change. The past several years showed that plenty of change is happening. For example, substantial increases in hybrid work models and the growing gig economy have had big impacts on the hours people work each day.  

Even though a five-day workweek remains the norm, that may not always be the case. Firms around the world, including U.S. companies, have been experimenting with even shorter workweeks for quite some time. It’s interesting to live and work at a time when more and more companies are testing standard workplace structures and offering flexible options to their workers.  

Companies here and abroad continue to explore different options. Read about some examples here:   

Employer or employee – make the most of your hours! 

Eric Goodwin, President & CEO of Goodwin Recruiting, has said many times to our team, “You are either growing on the vine or dying on the vine.” I believe this applies to people as well as companies, that effective talent recruiting is central to a successful journey – and that everyone needs weekends to stay happy and productive! 

Work with a leader for your talent needs or job search. Whether you want to talk through ways to support your team or you’re a professional interested in alternatives to the five-day workweek to improve work-life balance, I’m happy to connect and assist. One of our Core Values at Goodwin Recruiting is Congruent Relationships. We are about people and relationships, all day, every day, striving to be a solid resource for our clients and candidates.