Which U.S. vice president said this, and when?
“The time is not far distant when the working man can have a four-day week and family life will be even more fully enjoyed by every American. [These are] not dreams or idle boasts, simply projections of the gains we have made in the past four years.”
The answer is Richard Nixon, when he and Dwight Eisenhower were running for reelection in 1956.
When Nixon advocated for the four-day workweek, the demand to spend less time working had already been central to progressive politics for 90 years. After a long absence, it has finally returned. First and foremost, the United Auto Workers are preparing to strike, calling not just for better pay and benefits, but also a 32-hour, four-day workweek.
In the second half of the 1800s, new industrial employers regularly required 60 hours or more of work each week. On May 1, 1867, unions demonstrated in Chicago in support of a new Illinois law that mandated an eight-hour workday. This didn’t go anywhere: Employers largely ignored both the demonstrators and the law.
But in memory of the 1867 protests, a nationwide labor federation picked May 1, 1886 as the day for a universal strike calling for an eight-hour day. This was such a heartfelt desire that demonstrators sang a song called “Eight Hours”:
We want to feel the sunshine
And we want to smell the flow’rs.
We are sure that God has willed it
And we mean to have eight hours.
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will.
The millionaires of the Gilded Age found this so charming that Chicago police shot and killed several striking workers at the city’s McCormick reaper plant. The next day, a striker threw a bomb at the cops, killing one of them. All of this became known as the Haymarket Affair, one of the most significant events in U.S. labor history.
However, this didn’t make much difference for a long time. Unions had only intermittent success fighting for a shorter workweek until the 1930s and the Great Depression. In 1938, Congress finally passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the minimum wage, prohibited most child labor, and effectively created a 44-hour workweek. This was lowered to 40 hours two years later.
The fact that Nixon — generally not seen as a left-wing radical — was calling for a 32-hour workweek by 1956 illustrates how deeply it had seeped into American consciousness that, over time, everyone would get to work less and live more.
The fact that Nixon was calling for a 32-hour workweek illustrates how deeply it had seeped into American consciousness that, over time, everyone would get to work less and live more.
The general concept is simple, even if its manifestation is complex.
Over time, people figure out ways to produce more with the same amount of human labor. Looms made it possible for fewer workers to generate much more fabric. Legions of typists were replaced by computers and word-processing software. Eventually artificial intelligence may supplant, for instance, the radiologists who peer at scans of the inside of your body and try to puzzle out what’s going on in there.
This process is so powerful that even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels celebrated it in “The Communist Manifesto”:
The bourgeoisie … has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.
The bourgeoisie … has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
We’re used to the idea that people in an increasingly productive society can be paid more. But we generally don’t realize they also can get paid the same but work fewer hours. If productivity goes up enough, they get both: making more money for fewer hours.
John Maynard Keynes, one of history’s most important economists, considered what this meant in a 1930 essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”
As Keynes explained, “The economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race.” However, he argued, “the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years” — i.e., right about now.
Keynes speculated that people would still want to work, but perhaps only 15 hours a week. Then the rest of the time, each human would have to figure out “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
Keynes wasn’t sure we had it in us to pull this off. Larry Summers, the prominent Harvard economist who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, agrees. He recently expressed distress about the prospect of regular slobs having too much leisure time, saying “for every nonemployed middle-aged man who’s learning to play the harp or to appreciate the Impressionists, there are a hundred who are drinking beer, playing video games, and watching 10 hours of TV a day.”
But what Keynes foresaw, and Summers fears, has been largely off the U.S. political agenda since 1956. Increased productivity can lead to better pay or less work for regular people. But we now know this requires an immense political effort. For the most part over the last 50 years, neither has happened. American society overall has gotten far more productive during that time. But most of the gains from this have accrued for the top 10 percent of Americans, to the tune of about $47 trillion total.
The UAW’s demand illustrates that, at long last, regular folks are realizing again that it is totally feasible for them to work less, yet make the same amount of money or more.
The idea is slowly spreading through society across the world. The Maryland state legislature has been pondering a bill to encourage businesses to establish a four-day week. The Scottish National Party, the ruling party in Scotland, has called for a 32-hour week. Last year, 70 companies in the U.K. participated in a trial of a four-day week.
Making a four-day workweek the standard is obviously still far away. It will certainly face the same ferocious opposition as a five-day week did 100 years ago. But people simply understanding that it’s possible is a big, big step forward, and something to celebrate this Labor Day.