From The Atlantic: Is the shorter workweek all it promises to be?

 A new bill advocates for a 32-hour workweek. Can this approach cure what ails American workers?

Last week, Senators Bernie Sanders and Laphonza Butler presented an intriguing idea: making a shorter workweek a national norm. The bill they introduced proposes changing the standard workweek with no loss in pay for certain groups of employees, including many hourly workers, from 40 to 32 hours, at which point overtime pay would kick in. Whether that change sounds quixotic depends on whom you ask. But as Sanders said in a statement: “Moving to a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay is not a radical idea.”

America has long flirted with the notion of a shorter workweek. The Senate passed a bill in 1933 to temporarily implement a 30-hour week, but it stalled after corporate pushback and executive-branch cold feet. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act guaranteed an eventual 40-hour week for factory and other hourly employees (an improvement from the 50-plus-hour weeks some were working at the time) and helped such workers get paid for overtime labor.

The FLSA did not apply to some groups, including many salaried, white-collar workers, in part because their employers were trusted to look out for their workers’ best interests, Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told me. Since the 1980s, an era marked by deregulation and the rise of a harsher corporate culture, many employers have treated salaried workers as people with effectively unlimited hours. In 2021, building on the momentum for rethinking work that the pandemic had triggered, Representative Mark Takano introduced a bill that would amend the FLSA to shorten the standard workweek to 32 hours—a precursor to the legislation currently being considered.

“We are so overworked as a country,” Cappelli said. “It’s hard to say anything bad about efforts to improve people’s work lives.” Still, it’s not clear to him that squeezing the same amount of work out of employees over shorter periods would be feasible or healthy, or that it would cure what really ails American workers. As my colleague Derek Thompson wrote in a 2019 essay, “The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production.”

Calls for a shorter workweek may not solve this problem overnight. But as the idea becomes more mainstream, it reflects a growing desire, in and beyond the halls of power, to reconsider the role work plays in many Americans’ lives. To Cappelli, a more sensible but still ambitious way to handle the problem of overwork would be to improve enforcement of the FLSA for all eligible workers. He explained that many employers looking to get out of the law’s requirements treat workers who probably should be covered as if they are exempt, meaning they miss out on things like overtime pay.

“Reducing working hours for Americans makes sense in the long run,” Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, told me in an email. But the current research on four-day workweeks is “patchy,” he said, in part because a lot of the data are coming from advocacy groups working with employers who volunteered to try a shorter week, rather than from independent researchers. Their findings have suggested that employees who work fewer hours are less burned out. Data gathered by Gallup in June 2022, however, showed that people working four days a week actually had higher rates of burnout than those working five days. Still, a 2023 Gallup survey found that workers liked the idea in theory—nearly 80 percent of workers thought that a shorter workweek would improve their well-being.

Even if it isn’t mandated by the government, a work life that isn’t so focused on endless output with few boundaries could benefit workers and their bosses. Over the past four decades, Cappelli explained, employers have pushed their employees hard. But that might not be a good way to do business: “In a tight labor market, there really are costs to employers of burning through employees.”