Fringe ideas are fringe ideas until they aren’t. When reformers started to push for child-labor laws around a century ago, it looked like an outside shot. So did a $15 minimum wage, before Vice President Joe Biden and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took up the cause a few weeks ago. (It still does—and some say it's a bad idea in the first place—but it’s come a long way in a short time.) Not to be outdone, Berkeley, California, is now pressing to require a $19 hourly wage, and one CEO promised employees a $70,000 minimum salary earlier this year.
But the U.S. is notoriously slower than much of the world to come around to issues of work-life policy (we're still behind 184 countries on paid maternity leave). So while the Guardian reported last week that Sweden's latest experiment with a six-hour workday is so far successful, would the idea ever fly here? And would we even want it to?
By most accounts, a six-hour workday probably won’t be coming to a U.S. employer near you anytime soon. Kerri L. Stone, a law professor at Florida International University who studies employment and labor laws, credits a "growing resistance to government-mandated restraints on employers" as one reason why.
She points out that the push to raise the minimum wage still faces staunch resistance just about everywhere outside of wealthy urban centers. Then there’s the fact that labor unions are on the wane, proposed laws against workplace bullying have mostly fizzled out, and courts are making it harder for employees to successfully sue for discrimination. And that’s not to mention the wage gaps facing women and minorities.
For the foreseeable future, American activists and lawmakers will have their hands full with those bigger issues before even being able to think about six-hour workdays. After all, we’re still playing catchup on most of them.
It’s no wonder that the idea of a six-hour workday is getting its most rigorous test drive in Sweden, which has actually been experimenting with it on and off since the late '80s. And even there, it still faces pushback from officials who say it’s too costly.
But what if the costs are worth it?
We’ve long known that putting in more time doesn’t necessarily mean being more productive. In fact, research has shown there’s a tidy correlation between swelling hours and diminishing returns. Experts now agree that working for eight hours straight is far from the most efficient way to get things done.
"From a productivity perspective, do I think an employee can accomplish in six hours what normally gets done in eight? Yes," says productivity expert Laura Stack, "especially if [they’re] working from home." Under circumstances that limit distractions, "every worker can be more efficient."
In theory, that should mean that shorter, more efficient workdays are in the best interest of companies. But Stack says it’s difficult to extrapolate from trials like the one in Sweden, which may show great results at the beginning, as workers focus on adjusting to a new schedule, only to lapse once it’s become routine—a classic management phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect.
There are other practical obstacles, too. "First of all, people don’t work eight hours," Stack explains. "They work more like 10 or 12, by the time you count the hours they’re doing email on personal time from their smartphones," she says.
"Second, corporate America hasn’t made the shift from measuring hours clocked to results. Management wants to get more hours out of people, not less. So unless you can measure goal achievement and results for a particular person, you’ll get resistance."
But even if there were more reliable data to back up the six-hour workday, making a case for it would be tough to do for other reasons.
It’s no accident that the experiment in Sweden is limited to senior care: Nursing homes are location-specific. Jobs there can’t be sent overseas. As Stone, the legal scholar, points out, many other types of workers compete with cheaper labor in emerging markets.
And then there are hourly workers, few of whom could get by if their hours were cut, which in many cases would mean losing the benefits reserved for full-time employees. According to the Guardian, the Swedish retirement homes had to hire 14 more staff members to make up for the shortened shifts. It’s doubtful other organizations would be able to do the same and still offer full-time benefits to all of them.
Looking at the history of the labor movement, Stone says, "People often have difficulty understanding the need for protections until they themselves are victimized or exploited in the workplace." She notes that landmark labor laws, like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, were passed as part of the New Deal. "This legislation came in the wake of the Great Depression, when prospects for unprecedented numbers of Americans looked bleak and dire." In other words, things would need to get a lot worse for a lot more people for a six-hour workday to get taken seriously.
That could be one reason the latest labor-reform efforts still face so much resistance. "Current movements have to be presented to the public in a way that shows them as fair and beneficial to society," says Stone.
Advocates of a higher minimum wage and equal-pay legislation are making precisely that argument. As they know firsthand, it can still fall on deaf ears or get shouted down. Most of the time, the distance from the fringe to the center looks short only in retrospect.