A few years ago, I'd start each day by dragging myself out of bed, walking to a train stop, packing into a subway car with way too many other commuters for half an hour, and walking to my office. The trip took about an hour.
My commute was a touch longer than most, but only a touch. According to a recent Auto Insurance Center survey (who, admittedly, has its own reasons for pointing this out), the average American spends 26 minutes driving to work each day. And, unless they have access to some sort of wormhole loophole I'm not aware of, they probably spend another 26 minutes driving home every night. That's nearly an hour of work-related transportation each day.
An hour may not sound like much, but considering that most people only have around 16 waking hours each day, and around eight or nine of those are spent at work (along with an hour getting ready for work), we're talking six hours of free time total — and one of those is spent stuck in traffic.
Sorry, I've gone a little number-crazy here. I'm mostly thinking about how little free time we all have, and how much work manages to keep shaving off bits and pieces.
While it seems normal to spend the bulk of the day working, it really isn't, at least on a biological level. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, living in tribes where they'd work around 30 hours a week, say some anthropologists. Even when humans started farming, they were their own bosses — no one had to maintain a frantic pace. Plus, work depended heavily on the season. Winter hours would be pretty mild. Years would also be full of holidays — medieval France, for instance, had 84 public holidays a year in 1700.
So the idea of a fast-paced eight-hour (nine including commute) day is new to the species. Humans, and many other animals, are made for working in quick spurts, then resting for long periods. Constant work is something machines are good at. Perhaps it's no surprise that the all-day workday cemented itself during the Industrial Revolution, when humanity was becoming a bit obsessed with machines.
I can see why factory owners would want workers around to constantly support their machines a century ago. But in this era, work doesn't necessarily have much to do with time worked. Many workers are designing graphics, writing briefs, coordinating meetings and doing many other things that take more brainpower than time. Perhaps we as a species are ready to start thinking about the workday in terms of work completed, rather than time worked. After all, those hours of free time are the whole point of working, right?