May Day sparks talk of less work, more play

Marching on: Workers in the 1936 May Day Parade in New York City’s Union Square.

All over the world, May 1st is associated with fun, holidays and the right to take a break from work. Now experts are saying that more time off would make the world a better place.

What’s happening

May Day means maypoles and picnics in the park to most Britons. But it has a more radical meaning for millions around the world. During a protest in Chicago in 1886, demanding an eight-hour working day, a bomb went off killing many. Since then, May 1st is celebrated as International Workers’ Day.

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People have long campaigned for less work. In the 19th century Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer, coined the slogan ‘Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’. But factory owners at the time still made their employees work for up to 16 hours a day.

In 1914, the car company Ford made a bold choice: it cut work time from nine to eight hours a day, and doubled staff pay. To everyone’s surprise, the workers got more done. Soon, Ford had doubled its profits and other companies followed its example.

Workers in the developed world have since won many more rights, such as a minimum wage and paid holiday. The EU applies a maximum 48-hour week. But a growing number are calling for this limit to be reduced even more.

Some say…

Ford had the right idea. If people have more time off, they are happier, more focused, and make fewer mistakes. It may sound odd, the opposite of what you expect, but people can achieve more when they work less. Come the next May Day, workers should remember the meaning of their holiday and demand fewer hours. And their employers should listen.

Others think…

Work is not just about being productive. In an ideal world, it is also about doing something you love and giving back to society. Those lucky enough to enjoy work would be bored with so much free time on their hands. For others, it is simply not an option: try telling a surgeon to go home in the middle of a 16-hour operation.

You Decide

  1. What is work for: love or money?


  1. List five things you want from a future job. Compare with the person next to you. Are your choices different?

Some People Say...

“There is no substitute for hard work.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Decorated with long ribbons, which people hold as they dance around them.
Robert Owen
Owen owned several factories and mills. He introduced new ideas into his businesses such as shorter working hours and higher living standards for employees.
In the early 20th century, the company became famous for inventing a way of mass-producing cars.
48-hour week
Nobody in a country in the European Union has to work more than 48 hours per week if they do not want to.


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