The Rise of the Gig Economy

Chicago, May 1886.

In the decades following the Civil War, a rapidly growing labor force, comprising locals and immigrants alike, had flocked to the nation’s hubs of manufacturing for opportunities to work in the brave new world of industry. Workers of German and Bohemian heritage came in droves to work in inhumane conditions for $1.50 a day for around 60 hours a week, with a six-day-workweek. Long disenchanted with the marginalization and mistreatment of laborers, a growing force of pro-union workers, estimated to be at least 300,000 strong, gathered in Chicago on May 1stfor a general strike and demonstration in support of a more humane 8-hour workday—a radical concept at the time and one that begot pushback from employers.

On the night of May 4th, a demonstration in the Haymarket Square brought the attention of a mass of police, which erupted into violence. In the end, four workers and seven policemen were killed and over 100 injuries on both sides occurred. It would not be until the early 20thCentury that workers would start to see protections regarding their workdays.

The Workforce Transformation

Nowadays, the 8-hour workday has transcended the mere designation of scheduling.In the minds of many Westerners today, it is the gold standard for carving out a temporal niche for labor. Yet the very nature of labor has changed drastically, as has worker productivity—and some are even advocating for a further reduction in work hours.

A recent study, which surveyed 1,989 office workers, showed that, out of the eight hours worked in a day, the average office worker is only actually productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes. Those surveyed cited making food and drinks, checking social media, taking personal calls, and even searching for new jobs as some of the many distractions keeping them from actually working. So, employers are facing a new contentious subject: given these figures, is the eight-hour workday too long? Or, perhaps is there another solution?

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