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An Obituary for the 40-Hour Workweek Essay

The Department of Labor announced today the death of the 40-hour workweek after a lengthy battle with modernity that lasted over 40 years. Born on October 24, 1940, in a range of industries. Friends said the cause of death was the invention of the Blackberry electronic device, which created the expectation that workers would respond to emails within moments, irrespective of the time of day and without regard to weekends or holidays. “My boss would call me in the middle of the night while I was sleeping and be angry when I didn’t answer immediately,” said a doctor familiar with the case.

Cover up?

Conspiracy theorists believe that the 40-hour workweek actually died decades ago but grieving workers covered up its passing. The fringe group cites numerous reference to the death in songs by The Beatles beginning with Eight Days A Week and other cryptic, lyrical messages, like the utterance, “I’m very poor,” at the end of Strawberry Fields. Indeed there is evidence that the 40-hour workweek may well have died as early as 1982, although again conspiracy theorists contend that the actual death occurred much earlier.

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Was it murder?

Corporate leaders deny any culpability in the death of the 40-hour workweek, claiming that those affected were salaried workers for whom a 40-hour workweek was never intended. One particular CEO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the practice of working salaried workers upwards of 100 hours without additional compensation by explaining that the extra work typically yields greater results and correspondingly higher bonuses.

Salaried workers disagree. One middle-level manager reached at his home in a cardboard box produced receipts showing that his last bonus was three rolls of dimes, a book of McDonald’s gift certificates and four expired dry cleaning coupons.

The 40-hour workweek is survived by weakened benefits, greater out of pocket expenses for medical insurance, reduced vacation and sick leave, and greater income inequality. A memorial service is planned, though details were unavailable at press time.

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What does it mean?

Irrespective of the timing, circumstances or cause one thing is certain: The 40-hour workweek is indeed dead, leaving as is the case in so many untimely deaths, many troubling questions. Perhaps most troubling is what is the upward limit of hours which a company can expect a worker to be on the job? In many offices, salaried workers who log less than 55 hours are seen as less committed, less hard working, and less willing to make personal sacrifices; in short: less valuable to the firm.

Worker well-being has been on a downward slope since before the Great Recession. As the cost of benefits continued to rise, employers began cutting benefits outright or asking workers to “share the pain.” Some workers were reportedly placed in the unenviable position of offering up concessions or losing their jobs altogether. Many were laid off and immediately hired back as contractors.

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By the time of the Great Recession (frankly, I never understood why we call it that, I was there and I thought it sucked), workers had grown accustomed to arbitrary pay cuts, benefit rollbacks, and unpaid “furlough” days, all in the name sparing companies from extinction that probably should have perished. At the risk of sounding like an economic Darwinist, did we do the world any favors saving small businesses that probably should have been allowed to fail? Still, too many business leaders when forced to choose whether to invest in workers or to stuff company coffers, chose the latter at the expense of the former.

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We are at the cusp of another great business challenge — the Great Talent Drain. Managers of so-called lean enterprises are increasingly finding themselves hamstrung because they can’t find, attract and retain the talent they need to take their companies to the next level. This unintended consequence of their management practices provides smart entrepreneurs with a once in a lifetime opportunity. By restoring the 40-hour workweek; working with governments to control the costs of healthcare and prescription drugs; providing dental and vision coverage; partnering with workers and offering a more equitable split of the company earnings, forward-looking entrepreneurs will have the proverbial pick of the litter when it comes to staffing. Thus will they attract the best with whom to compete against the rest.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in the deceased's name to your favorite charity. Or not.

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