I am interested in a (reasonably) quantified explanation of why the work week in most of the world is 40 hrs and not for example 20? How did we arrive to the number 40.

Another question is, and here I understand I can't expect quantification so much, is why there are more part time jobs available in the low income range (menial work) but not so much among knowledge workers? For example, I am a software engineer living in a major metropolitan area, still finding part-time work is very hard. Seems like everyone wants full-time employees or at least contractors.

I am perplexed by this state of the labor market and would like to learn some perspectives on this from schooled economists.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ While your two questions are indeed interesting, they are only loosely related to one another. Please do try to just ask one (main) question per post. $\endgroup$
    – Herr K.
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ they are related and you or anyone can answer only one or both $\endgroup$
    – amphibient
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 17:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ As @HerrK. pointed out, separate questions should be asked separately. Yes, everything is related, but this is a really weak relationship. Voting to close as too broad. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ Even the first one is broad. The answer is that the 40 hour week was the result of struggles by organised labour over decades, and different countries followed a different path. Not sure how many economic historians read this website. Unless one shows up, the original poster might just need to do a web search for histories. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2018 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @HerrK. and the others. Users wouldn't find the second question from the title you chose. Please place the second question as a separate one. $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2018 at 3:49

2 Answers 2


The 40-week comes started with the movement of the 8h working day. The wikipedia article makes a quick summary of the historical progress of thinking from 12h work days in Britain during the industrial revolution to the nowadays 8h/day.

The quick summary is that after the first world war, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed and its first convention was defining limits for the work day:

Having decided (...) the "application of the principle of the 8-hours day or of the 48-hours week" which is the first item in the agenda

From Convention Limiting the Hours of Work in Industrial Undertakings to Eight in the Day and Forty-eight in the Week (ILO, 1919)

This meant that generally workers would work 8h/day as a maximum, with 1 day of rest per week. 52 countries have ratified this convention, although not immediately.

The change for the 40h week came in 1935, with another ILO convention, which explains the motivations in its preamble:

Considering that unemployment has become so widespread and long continued that there are at the present time many millions of workers throughout the world suffering hardship and privation for which they are not themselves responsible and from which they are justly entitled to be relieved;

Considering that it is desirable that workers should as far as practicable be enabled to share in the benefits of the rapid technical progress which is a characteristic of modern industry; and

Considering that in pursuance of the Resolutions adopted by the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sessions of the International Labour Conference it is necessary that a continuous effort should be made to reduce hours of work in all forms of employment to such extent as is possible;

adopts (...) the following Convention, which may be cited as the Forty-Hour Week Convention, 1935:

From: ILO Forty-Hour Week Convention, 1935 (No. 47)

This later convention has been ratified by 15 countries only.

Further recommendations on the reduction of hours were made in 1962 (source ILO). The ILO also has a page summarizing the work done in the last 100 years on working time, which is a great resource to learn more.


I am interested in a (reasonably) quantified explanation of why the work week in most of the world is 40 hrs and not for example 20? How did we arrive to the number 40.

Both current 40 hour workweek and its predecessor, 48 hours workweek with 6 days of work are a result of 8 hours workday. 8 hours comes from the division of 24 hours into three equal parts: 8h sleep, 8h rest and 8h work.

JoaoBotelho and Brian Romanchuk are right - it was direct result of the XIX and early XX century organized labour’s struggles, which was based on employees observations of their work fatigue rather than a result of a scientific research. Perhaps the first, who tried to measure the effect of a 8h workday from the productivity standpoint was Henry Ford, who introduced 8 hour-workday in 1914.

[...] Ford said, “We have settled on the eight-hour day ... because it so happens that this is the length of time which we find gives the best service for men, day in and day out.” This notion that the institution of the eight-hour day was a matter of “proven” efficiency, was based on no solid calculation showing the specific superiority of eight hours. Still, Ford could point to several ways in which the new schedule served the company. The switch from two nine-hours to three eight-hour shifts provided for an extra six hours of production. [...] Ford and his advisors also saw efficiency as served by the eight-hour, five-dollar day in that the new labor policy decreased turnover and absenteeism and increased labor discipline. [...] Labor turnover dropped by 90 percent, and absenteeism was at least halved. According to some figures it plummeted from 10 percent to .3 percent per day.

(source: Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day, David R. Roediger, Philip Sheldon Foner - please refer to this source for broader context and more information on the 40 hours workweek in the U.S.)

Around the time of the I Word War, legislators started introducing 8 hour-workday (both in 40 and 48 hours-a-week model) pressed by workers movements, but there weren’t any hard calculations on this issue.

Later studies confirmed employees and Ford’s observations: there is a workhour-health limit of around 40 hours on average. The last research I know of, Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities (Social Science & Medicine, 2017 vol. 176), calculated this limit to 43.5 h per week for men and 38 h per week for woman.

As to your second question, please make it into a different post and we'll answer it.


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