Punching Out: An analysis of America’s changing jobs market

My intrepid editor at Motif, for my contribution to RI’s numero uno alt-news mag’s issue on the state of the economy (or the economy of the state; or the state of the economy of the state), assigned me to explain the origins of the 9-5, standard, five-day work week. There being no consensus on the origin, the following is a brief summary of the genesis of working hours and its evolution as we march toward a new frontier in employment.

In 1908, a New England cotton spinning mill implemented the five-day work week. The mill had a  population of Jewish workers. Jewish God, being omniscient, omnipresent and a fan of NFL Sunday, observed the Sabbath on Saturday. Christian God, apparently, disliked the future tradition of football and gluttony and decided Sunday should be a day to reflect on all things holy. So, in order to appease both the Jewish and Christian God, the mill granted both Saturday and Sunday off. Thus was born the five-day work week, with its two-day weekend, and, eventually, the NFL on Fox. Okay, like most historical accounts, it is more complex than that. But, let’s go with this one for the sake of moving on to more interesting subject matter.

While many attribute the 40-hour work week to the Ford Motor Company, that tends to ignore the push for this standard by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which evolved into the more familiar AFL-CIO. Their campaign for limits on working hours began shortly after the Civil War and was of primary concern at the 1886 explosively controversial demonstration in Haymarket Square. This is not a hyperbolic description, as there is to this day controversy regarding who set off a bomb in Haymarket Square. It was much later, in 1926, that Henry Ford’s company sanctioned the 40-hour work week, not as a matter of fair labor, but as a booster of productivity. Debatably ironic, Ford was of the opinion that a rested and competitively compensated workforce was more productive while working, notwithstanding his disdain for labor unions who had been fighting for the same thing, but for reasons of justice and humanity rather than higher corporate profits.

Federal standards limiting working hours were not enacted until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, which limited a work week to 44 hours. By 1940, this was whittled down to 40 hours. The FLSA codified many worker-protections, demanded for decades by labor unions, and systemically being eroded in the decades since by various incarnations of John Kasich or Scott Walker.

The 9-5 job structure works within a manufacturing job market. If an employer produces something to be distributed in exchange for money, that employer arranges a setting to facilitate production at the skill-level of those whom he or she hires. The workflow is managed and supervised for quality and efficiency. The overall productivity can be measured and incentivized for exceptional efficiency or punished for substandard production. In a manufacturing economy, employees are hired for their skills or aptitudes and paid for their time. Such a setup is ideal for an economy founded on manufacturing and clerical work. It is the assembly line model. It is oh so very 20th century.

More than halfway through our 17th year of the 21st century, as the nation either placates itself with the fantasy of bringing manufacturing back to America or waters down the word “innovation” a bit more each time it is poured without specificity, the assembly line model demonstrates its increasing irrelevance. Studies have shown that workers are not incentivized to produce by dangling sweeter carrots or threatening sharper sticks. In fact, quite the opposite. Successful innovation does not thrive in environments constantly interrupted by meetings and managers, or contained by clocks and cubicles. Furthermore, the changing economic landscape does not favor the expansion of a middle-class job market of 9-5 factory jobs when states compete against one another in a smokestack-baiting race to the bottom for labor costs; and, when all states are competing with Make America Great Again labels stitched on goods made in other countries.

Jobs are good. We like jobs. There is no debate about that. In 21st century America, however, where our overinflated sense of exceptionalism is supported by the realities of corporate innovation leviathans such as Apple and Google, we must ask ourselves: Do we want to invest time and resources in 20th century jobs? Or, rather than sawing down innovation into a neat little package to fit an accepted societal norm, do we want to innovate the very model of innovation jobs (innovation jobs being those jobs that conceive, create, invent, introduce, develop and/or improve upon)? The innovation economy can be thought of as the process between imagination and industry.

As there are advantages to the newly evolving employment model, so there are undoubtedly drawbacks to what has come to be known as the “gig” economy. When one is perpetually freelancing, one trades job-security for job-flexibility. Sure, you are your own boss and can set your own hours and your own fees. But once your gig is over, you better have another one lined up. If you get a 1099 in January instead of a W2, do not expect to collect any unemployment insurance because nobody has been paying the premium. And if you are a person with a family with whom you enjoy spending time, you are lucky in that you may be able to work from home, or anywhere. Conversely, in order to be competitive with rival “gigsters” (possibly those who do not have families), when you set those off-work hours in order to disconnect from work-related communication, you can be sure that there are some people out there who will pick up the phone when you do not.

Other more macrocosmic impacts are already being felt. Not everyone is or wants to be an innovator. Not everyone can or should pursue a post-secondary education. Not everyone wants an economy where you must hustle every day for the next gig. Where does that leave them? Or, how about the fact that rural America’s working-age population is in decline, as the relative isolation from modern jobs and job skills draws more and more to urban centers and leaves behind retirement-age residents who find themselves lacking basic services such as transportation and primary healthcare. (By the way, I wrote a policy proposal recently published and on which the Congressional Innovation Caucus was briefed in Washington, DC last month. So, I will not delve too deeply into this economic challenge here.)

None of this is to say we can stop the proverbial “wheels of progress.” They are going to chug forward, and no amount of (mostly white, mostly male, mostly older and resentful of youth and multiculturalism) backlash will stop this locomotive and reverse course to 1956, when men were men and women were women, and gays had to live in closets and in fear, and people of color were expected to know their place, and taxes on the rich were around 90%, and pensions were funded because the average life expectancy was only around 67, and poverty levels accurately reflected the costs of living because food costs outweighed housing and healthcare and thank you very much, Mollie Orshansky. We have, in many ways, evolved. And, we will continue to do so, NFL-loving God willing.

Hopefully, America will take with it the lessons learned from the labor movement and the Great Depression and the Family Medical Leave Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act and work toward adapting to a new innovation economy with those advances as fundamental workers’ rights. Hopefully, the individual hunt for riches will recognize that history, good or bad, is important because America did not start yesterday and will not end tomorrow. And, hopefully, America will find a balance between the workadays and the gigsters, both being valued fairly for their contributions to the changing American workforce.

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