Bernie Sanders Is Calling for a 32-Hour Workweek

American workers spend way more time on the clock than their counterparts in other rich countries. A new bill from Bernie Sanders seeks to change that, by shrinking the workweek to 32 hours with no loss in pay.

Senator Bernie Sanders questions witnesses during a hearing about working hours in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 14, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Many people hate their jobs. Some don’t. But almost everyone would like to work less. And over the past several decades, American workers have worked longer hours overall as their wages have stagnated. As if that weren’t enough, they have also seen their declining amount of free time disrupted by increasingly erratic schedules. It’s a dismal situation. Strange, then, that politicians almost never speak to this widespread desire.

But yesterday, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders announced that he would introduce Senate legislation to establish a standard thirty-two-hour workweek, with no loss in pay, across the United States. Sanders’s Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act is being cosponsored by Democratic California senator Laphonza Butler in the Senate, and Representative Mark Takano, also a California Democrat, has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

Experiments with a shorter week are now being pursued in several European countries. In Germany last month, forty-five companies began a six-month pilot of a four-day workweek; Germany currently has an average workweek of 34.2 hours. (One of the organizations supporting the pilot, 4 Day Week Global, has also endorsed Sanders’s bill.) A similar test run is currently underway in Portugal, and one concluded in the UK at the end of 2022.

France legally mandated a thirty-five hour workweek in 2000. But some companies there are now experimenting with a thirty-two-hour week as well. (Others are simply allowing workers to squeeze a thirty-five-hour week into four weekdays.) Senator Sanders’s bill raises the obvious question: Why can’t the United States, the wealthiest nation in human history, do the same?

Even setting recent shorter-week experiments aside, the United States is an outlier among rich countries in terms of how many hours we spend working. According to the press release from Sanders’s office announcing the bill, full-time US workers now spend an average of forty-two hours on the clock per week (though that figure may not account for people working multiple jobs). Looking at annual average hours per work, the United States comes in well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. At 1,815 hours, the average US worker is clocking almost five hundred hours more per year than the average German worker and about three hundred more than the average worker in France or the UK.

Labor sociologist Jamie McCallum points out that this has particularly harmed low-wage workers in the United States because of stagnant wages. Poor workers are working long hours because they are trying to make up for the economic ground they’ve lost in recent years — and have lost control of their lives in the process.

Sanders’s legislation has been endorsed by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and a number of major national unions, including the United Auto Workers (UAW) — who also championed the demand for a thirty-two-hour workweek in their recent strike against the Big Three automakers. Today, UAW president Shawn Fain spoke at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which Sanders chairs, in support of the legislation.

The proposal stands in sharp distinction with recent rhetoric on the Right about work and retirement. Ben Shapiro, for example, recently argued, “Let’s be real about this: it’s totally insane that we haven’t raised the retirement age in the United States. It’s totally crazy. . . . No one in the United States should be retiring at sixty-five years old. Frankly, I think retirement itself is a stupid idea, unless you have some kind of health problem.”

It makes for a stark contrast: Ben Shapiro believes Americans should work until they drop dead, and Bernie Sanders believes Americans deserve more time off.

Sanders’s proposal is of a piece with the bold, popular social democratic demands that he championed in his two presidential campaigns. Though the bill will almost certainly face fierce opposition from moderates and conservatives in Congress and corporate interests beyond Capitol Hill, hopefully it can serve as an inspiration to a Democratic Party that is struggling to find a winning message — and a demand for the rising insurgent wing of the US labor movement to champion more broadly. After all, nobody wants to give their one precious life over to their job.