For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Opinion: A Four-Day Workweek Is a Win-Win for All.

Technology is making the 40-hour workweek an outmoded tradition.

Historically, the workweek concept was based on the cycle of working from sunup to sundown, stopping either because the necessary work got done or it got too dark to see. The invention of gaslights in the late 19th century, followed by electric lights, made sunset an outmoded stopping point. During the Industrial Revolution, a typical workweek in a factory could last 70 hours.

In 1926, industrialist Henry Ford was the first to establish an eight-hour workday at his factories and to limit the week to five days when most employers demanded six. “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege,” Ford said.

He believed workers who had gotten some rest put cars together better than exhausted, burnt-out ones, and he could, therefore, get the equivalent of six days’ work out of them while only requiring five. Ford ran his factories 24/7 with rotating shifts. Other industrialists didn’t follow initially, but during the Great Depression, they were pressured to adopt similar practices.

Government policies also altered work hours. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration pushed for it because it would require companies to hire more people and alleviate the Great Depression’s high unemployment. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, requiring employers to pay overtime if workers put in more than 44 hours a week. Two years later, that was amended to 40 hours a week. The FLSA required recording work hours to determine if an employee was due overtime, so employers scheduled 40-hour weeks to ensure compliance. Thus, the 40-hour week became standard.

When necessary, employers could get more labor from their workers by paying them a premium, i.e., overtime. Workers could even request overtime when they needed more money.

However many hours were worked, it was assumed that the work would always be done at the employer’s location. It wasn’t practical in most cases to do the work anywhere else. A new technology changed that, too.

The 2000s saw the advent of telecommuting, using the internet and or new cell phone technology to work outside of the employer’s location. Employers were wary of it. Most instinctively did not like being unable to directly monitor employees. Like many traditions, the 40-hour workweek lingered because that was how it had always been done.

Then, the COVID pandemic forced people who had never worked from home before to do so. The technology already existed to make that possible. People just had to get familiar with it — and they did.

The same technology made side-hustle “gig economy” jobs like ridesharing or delivery work easy fallbacks for people who were between jobs or needed extra cash. Once upon a time, being a freelancer was confined to specific professions like photography or music.

Most people have now gotten a taste for working outside an office, and quite a few prefer that alternative. They would rather be able to mind their kids more, not have to bother with the stress and expense of commuting, or just stay in the comfortable environment of their home. The pandemic inadvertently proved that this model can work on a large scale. With the labor market as tight as it is, employers find it hard to say “no.”

Currently, 18 percent of workers telecommute, triple the number from 2019.

This brings us full circle: The 40-hour workweek began to ensure workers could spend more time at home, ensuring that when the final hour struck, the workers could put down their tools and journey home. Many of today’s workers are already home. Their example is causing others to demand similar arrangements.

Employers are pressured to offer alternate arrangements, such as working at home but agreeing to finish projects by specific deadlines. Strict 40-hour requirements typically are not necessary for these arrangements.

The 40-hour week won’t disappear overnight. Federal regulations like overtime are tied to it, and Congress must amend laws to keep up with current trends. But it is no longer needed and is already beginning to fade as the norm. Technology, not government, has proved one of the greatest, if least credited, forces for social change. It makes possible opportunities that never existed before and renders old, once-necessary processes obsolete.