How did the workweek develop?

Figure 1. The Hebrew calendar and concept of seven day week was heavily influenced by the Babylonian calendar.

The modern workweek, where there are five days of work and a two-day weekend, developed in the early 20th century as a response to religious observance and worker needs as the Industrial Revolution had begun to affect all aspects of life. Although the origins of the week, and even concepts of a weekend, are very old, only over the last 100 years has there been a formal, set concept of a workweek and weekend in many countries.

Early Origins

The origin of the seven day week appears to be from ancient Mesopotamia, from Sumerian-Babylonian culture that likely developed possibly as early as 5000-4000 years ago and divided days into segments of seven. The Babylonians saw that seven was a type of 'divine' number, with seven major planets and group of seven gods signifying aspects of the relevance for the number seven (Figure 1). Festival days for gods often lasted seven days. This concept led to dividing time in weeks with 7 being the key division in a week. The names of the week were named after gods and this is also true in our modern system, although different gods are used. Thursday, for example, was meant to be Thor's Day, that is the day of Thor in the Anglo-Saxon language.[1]

While what was the Sumerian-Babylonian concept of week or seven day divisions eventually influenced the Hebrew calendar and later the Western calendar through adoption in the Classical world, the idea of a workweek had not developed fully in the ancient world. Among the closest, however, was the Jewish use of the weekly calendar, where there would be six days of work and one Sabbath day based on the interpretation that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Sabbath meant any day or holy day where work would cease. This, however, did influence what became the Christian week, where the Sabbath was effectively Sunday. In the Medieval period in Europe, people were expected to work throughout the week and on Sunday worship in their local perish.[2]

There were other calendars and forms of workweeks. For instance, the Romans used a system where eight days of work were expected then there was one day off. This was also true for schoolchildren who were given an eight day off. Often, the eight day would be a market day where families and individuals would have time to shop. During the French Revolution, a ten day schedule for work was expected before a day off was given, as a secular system began, for the first time, to be imposed for time off rather than using the Christian calendar.[3]

Industrial Revolution Influence

In the late 19th century, factory workers and others in the United Kingdom were using their Sunday's, as their one day off, to enjoy at local pubs or gamble. This often meant that Monday became a day when many workers simply did not show up to work or were very late to work. Business owners responded by giving their workers half of Saturday off as a way to compensate for the fact that they wanted their workers to come to work on Monday. Effectively, they gave them an extra night to enjoy in exchange for coming to work back on time on Monday. Soon, writing around the late 1870s and later, began to refer to this period as the week-end or the period that was the end of the week when workers would have Saturday night and Sunday off. In fact, the first known instance of the use of the term 'weekend' or 'week-end' was in the magazine Notes and Queries in an article published in 1879.<re>For more on the emerging concept of the weekend, see: </ref>

Figure 2. A Soviet calendar from 1929-1930 indicating rest days in black.

A key moment in the modern workweek came in 1908, when a mill in New York became the first business to give workers all of Saturdays and Sundays off, that is the first modern weekend and workweek. This occurred because the factory had a substantial number of Jewish and Christian workers. Jewish workers celebrated the Sabbath from Friday night to Saturday, while Christians wanted Sunday off. What began as an incentive to the Jewish workers soon became established for all workers in the factory.[4]

Nevertheless, despite the use of the five day workweek and two day weekend, this concept did not catch on in the rest of the United States at this point. In 1926, Henry Ford began to implement a five day workweek by closing his factories on Saturday and Sunday. His reform was popular as he did not reduce pay but cut one day off from work. Major clothing and textile factories also began to follow this example soon after. Some factories and workplaces did institute a five day workweek, but it only became routine during the Great Depression. For companies that were struggling financially during this time, one remedy to diminish costs was to shorten the workweek, which was often six days, to five days. In fact, it was during the Great Depression that businesses switched to a 40 hour workweek, whereas the standard before then was close to 49 hours. This helped many businesses stay viable during a very difficult economic period for the US and the world. By 1940, what solidified the modern weekend in the United States was the Fair Labor Standards Act, that made the 40 hour workweek the norm. In effect, this meant that two days off were needed and Saturday and Sunday were the most convenient for this given their cultural background and norms already practiced in parts of the country. As companies had already began to widely implement a 40 hour workweek, Congress helped make the modern workweek to be standard even after the Great Depression when corporate profits returned to normal levels. Other countries, including the Soviet Union, did not adopt the concept of 40 hour work week, although after World War II it increasingly became common in Western countries as economies began to align (Figure 2).[5]

Recent Developments

As more countries have begun to align to a single, unified system, the workweek is now beginning to look similar in many regions. Much of Asia, for instance, uses Saturday and Sunday as their weekend and the workweek as the rest of the days. Islamic countries often are dissimilar than Western states, as their holy day is Friday. Many Islamic countries use Friday and Saturday as their weekend, while Sunday is often a workday week. However, some Islamic countries with Christian minorities give Christians this day off or parts of the day off. International organizations have also supported the 40 hour workweek and bodies such as the International Labour Organization have stated that workers should not work more than 48 hours. The relatively equal amount of work time most countries have has helped to create more standardized and equal workweeks in many countries.[6]

More modern recommendations have even been developed to address problems such as carbon emissions, pollution, inequality, and free time available for childcare. The New Economics Foundation, for instance, has called for a 21 hour workweek. While technology could make this possible, there is little acceptance of this at management and government levels. In Europe, notably France, the workweek has been officially reduced to 35 hours as the standard week.[7]


The modern workweek is a relatively recent development. In effect, both the Industrial Revolution and Globalization have helped it to become relatively standard to have 40 hour weeks with five day workdays and two day weekend. While the concept of a workweek do go back to very ancient periods, there often was no standard as to when workers would have time off and often it varied greatly from society to society.


  1. For more on the origins and conventions of the Western calendar days and week, see: Stern, S. (2012). Calendars in antiquity: empires, states, and societies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. For more on the Sabbath and the origins of the concept of the workweek, see: Kleinman, S. (Ed.). (2009). The culture of efficiency: technology in everyday life. New York: Peter Lang, pg. 93.
  3. For more on ancient work weeks, see: Zerubavel, E. (1989). The seven day circle: the history and meaning of the week. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. For more on the 1908 five day workweek, see: Negrey, C. (2012). Work time: conflict, control and change. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press.
  5. For more on how the 40 hour workweek and two day weekend became national fixtures, see: Ehrenreich, J. (2014). The altruistic imagination: a history of social work and social policy in the United States. Cornell University Press.
  6. For more on how the workweek became more standardized in countries, particularly due to the effects of globalization, see: Lee, S., Eyraud, F., & International Labour Office (Eds.). (2008). Globalization, flexibilization and working conditions in Asia and the Pacific. Geneva, Switzerland : Oxford: International Labour Office ; In association with Chandos.
  7. For more on recent events around the concept of the workweek, see: Giele, J. Z., & Holst, E. (Eds.). (2003). Changing life patterns in Western industrial societies. Amsterdam ; London: JAI.