History and Historiography

Robert Owen, born 250 years ago, tried to use his wealth to perfect humanity in a radically equal society

By Richard Gunderman

Do you have a work schedule that leaves you with enough time off the clock to rest up and handle your other responsibilities?

If so, you might owe something to Robert Owen, a wealthy industrialist who was born in Wales on May 14, 1771.

Portrait of a wealthy, well-dressed man with well-coifed hair in the 19th century

Welsh social reformer Robert Owen, portrayed about a decade after his experimental community in Indiana collapsed. National Library of Wales

Owen is widely credited with being the first person to advocate for a universal “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” approach to work-life balance. He experimented with this concept at his own factories and urged employers everywhere to adopt this management ethos as part of the socialist ideology he embraced decades before Karl Marx.

In the early 19th century, many U.S. and European factory workers worked up to 18 hours a day, six days a week.

Once a year, I travel with 15 fellows enrolled in a leadership program to New Harmony. It’s the site of Owen’s greatest experiment, a “cooperative community” he founded in southern Indiana on the banks of the Wabash River. Far more radical than limiting labor to eight-hour workdays, the utopia Owen envisioned ran up against human nature.




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