Why are we working so much? As far back a 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that we would be working 15-hour weeks by 2030, yet nearly a century later, Britain is putting in some of the longest hours in Europe. Despite this, productivity remains low, and there’s an uneven distribution of the work that does go around: some people work well over 40 hours a week, while others are desperate for more work as unemployment sits at 4 per cent and underemployment is around 7 per cent.
But what if the solution to these problems was simple – that we had to cut the number of working days from five down to four?
It’s an idea that’s been steadily gaining purchase across the political spectrum, discussed in radical texts on the left (Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future), echoed by the centre-left (Rutger Bregman’s bestselling Utopia for Realists), and praised by Silicon Valley’s libertarian right (the fintech company Bolt and the social media software firm Buffer have enacted the policy, and figures like Kickstarter founder John Leland evangelise it). The reasons for their faith in such a policy may differ – the left’s ideas centre on liberation, the right on profitability – but both sides tend to agree that it would boost productivity. But for its critics, the opposite is true: they argue that a four-day week would all but guarantee economic stagnation, and lead to lower standards of living.
“The UK pilot will see 30 firms, covering nearly 2,000 workers, take part in a scheme that will reduce the working week to 32 hours. Workers will retain 100 per cent of their pay, for 80 per cent of the time, provided 100 per cent productivity is maintained”
Since the coronavirus pandemic struck two years ago, the four-day week has jumped from theory into practice. Over the past three years, a successful trial to reduce working hours has taken place in Iceland; Belgium is set to offer workers the right to ask for a four-day week; Scotland and Spain are currently experimenting with government backed trials; and in England, an independent pilot will begin in June.
The UK pilot will see 30 firms, covering nearly 2,000 workers, take part in a scheme that will reduce the working week to 32 hours. Workers will retain 100 per cent of their pay, for 80 per cent of the time, provided 100 per cent productivity is maintained. The pilot – which is being run by 4 Day Week Global, in partnership with the 4-Day Week Campaign group, the think-tank Autonomy, and researchers at Cambridge, Oxford and Boston University – will test for worker productivity alongside stress levels, happiness and likelihood of staying in the role. The 4-Day Week Campaign anticipates several benefits: an improved work-life balance for employees; improved or consistent productivity for employers; wider financial benefits (such as savings due to less absenteeism and high employee turnover); and a rebalancing of working hours between the over and under-employed.
The campaign also anticipates a cavalcade of social benefits, should a future government back a four-day week. Work-related burnout causes more stress and less free time, which subsequently impacts people’s diet, the amount of exercise they get, and the quality of their sleep. “If we’re all better rested and happier, there’s a whole lot of preventative health there,” says Adrian McMahon of the 4-Day Week Campaign. “We know how much stress can impact someone’s poor health.” The campaign also argues that with more time to devote to caring and housework responsibilities, there could be greater gender equality: indeed, Autonomy’s report on Iceland’s four-day week trial found that men participated in more household chores, and that overall household stress was reduced as there was more time for both parents to participate in the school run and other stress inducing activities.
Some companies have already implemented a four-day week, and show what it could look like in practise. CMG Technologies, which makes parts for medical, automotive, and aeronautical industries using metal injection moulding, adopted a four-day week with no loss of pay in 2015. To achieve this, the company – whose staff were already working 35 hours a week, compared to the typical 40 – lengthened the working day so that every task could be completed over four days instead of five. Those employees who couldn’t shape their lives around these longer hours (such as mothers) would still work five days, but received a pay rise. This is just one way of organising a four-day week – other suggestions are that companies simply reduce the number of overall working hours across the board and hire more employees to make up for the shortfall.
“The four-day week helps reduce what the late anthropologist David Graeber referred to as the ‘bullshitisation’ of work, where management philosophies are built around the assumption that employees need to be regularly supervised”
At CMG, the implementation process ended up increasing productivity. According to managing director Rachel Garrett, the company “no longer had the luxury of time” to make mistakes, so they optimised their processes and consistently make parts first time. And while CMG never had a particular problem with absenteeism, since introducing the four-day week, it’s even lower. The company consulted with employees prior to implementing the shorter week, and Garrett found that staff were scheduling appointments on their extra day off and using the time while their kids were at school to manage the general admin of life. Holley Lockwood, a sales administrator at CMG, has a three-day weekend from Saturday to Monday. She schedules appointments on Monday and uses it to “prepare for the week”. As a result, she spends the full two-day weekend with her family and friends which she says has been “just brilliant” for her mental health.
Still, CMG is a relative outlier when it comes to the four-day week. While many of the firms currently experimenting with reducing their working hours are information-based, CMG actually produces goods. The digital marketing firm Reboot, on the other hand, is a somewhat more typical business operating the model. Although unorthodox in some ways (since Covid, they’ve abandoned their office to work fully remotely), Reboot’s jobs are mostly computer-based.
“A range of figures… have argued that a four-day week only seems to work for white collar workers in the service and tech sectors, meaning that reduced working time could end up increasing inequality, becoming a perk exclusive to the professional, managerial ‘laptop class’”
“I found that people are coming back to work Monday mornings, rested and energised,” says Victoria Affleck, the company’s senior content lead. “I think there’s definitely been an uptick in the creativity and the ideas that are coming out of brainstorms now, in comparison to pre-four-day week.” One employee, Bethany Surridge, echoes Affleck’s comments. “I’ve noticed my creativity improving, in terms of the number of ideas I have,” she says. “I’m much more focused Monday to Thursday than I was when working till Friday.” (She uses her extra day off to go for a much longer bike ride than she would otherwise be able to after work.)
A common criticism of the four-day week model among recruiters and consulting firms is that rather than reducing stress, cramming five days’ work in to four days will heighten it. After all, what’s the point of an extra day of rest if workers are just as burnt out by Friday? But both management and employees at CMG and Reboot dispute this assessment, suggesting that the added pressure results in a greater optimisation of time. Unnecessary meetings are cut, and strategies are developed during the consultation process to find where time is currently wasted in order to stop it. In other words, the four-day week helps reduce what the late anthropologist David Graeber referred to as the “bullshitisation” of work, where management philosophies are built around the assumption that employees need to be regularly supervised, and sprawling bureaucracies within finance, HR and consultancy have filled information work with pointless tasks and meetings that don’t need to happen. Graeber himself proposed a shorter working week to combat both the existence of “bullshit jobs” and the “bullshitisation” of otherwise useful work; anecdotally, these firms seem to confirm his theories.
Even with some success stories, though, the lingering question of class hangs over the policy. Right now, a lot of the firms most enthusiastic about reducing working hours are found across Silicon Valley and in its international equivalents. A range of figures – from Julian Jessop, former economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, to the Financial Times editorial board, to James Evans, the Conservative member of the Senedd – have argued that a four-day week only seems to work for white collar workers in the service and tech sectors, meaning that reduced working time could end up increasing inequality, becoming a perk exclusive to the professional, managerial ‘laptop class’.
One reason for this is that the labour movement – one of the main historical engines behind reductions in working hours – is much weaker than it was 100 years ago, when the five-day week was first introduced. Trade unions and groups like the Early Closing Association pushed for a formalisation of the unofficial Saint Monday tradition from the mid-1800s; employers pushed back against their idle employees, threatening them with the sack on Tuesday if they had taken Monday off. Workers, both organised and unorganised, found themselves in step with religious groups and figures from the leisure industry in their drive to move workers to the five-day week, and the two-day weekend was finally established in the 1930s, when decades of campaigning had made it impossible to resist. But while 45.45 per cent of the workforce were unionised in 1920, by 2020, this figure had dropped to 23.7 per cent, with the unions themselves under severe constraints since the passing of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act in 1992 and its update in 2016.
“Would more free time herald a new era of leisure, revitalising our culture and society as people are able to put time into what really matters: writing songs or poetry, engaging in community activities and generating economic prosperity?”
This period of historical weakness hasn’t stopped the Trade Union Congress demanding a four-day week. Afzal Rahman, TUC policy officer for pay and employment, says that the four-day week is the logical continuation of the labour movement’s history, and is about making sure “workers see the benefit of automation, technology and increasing productivity”. He says the TUC is “cognisant of” the risk that the uneven application of the four-day week could further entrench inequality but argues that the right approach is not to hold some people back, but to focus on how to extend these rights to all workers.
Will Stronge, director of Autonomy, agrees. “I think the criticism is correct,” he says, but adds that part of his job is to pressure more trade unions into campaigning: “I want to crack on with making sure this conversation is happening in every single workplace.” He argues that “first mover companies” that implement a four-day week without government help are important because they demonstrate that there is a precedent in this country for the policy that Autonomy eventually wants governments to help finance.
In 2019, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was in sync with the TUC on this issue, pledging to reduce working hours to 32 hours a week within a decade. The current Labour leader Keir Starmer has yet to put forward a policy on the issue, though the party’s direction of travel – moving to the right on economics from the Corbyn years – suggests that it’s unlikely to champion working hour reductions at the next general election.
Would more free time herald a new era of leisure, revitalising our culture and society as people are able to put time into what really matters: writing songs or poetry, engaging in community activities and generating economic prosperity? Or would a four-day week look more like the start of the pandemic, where the professional classes were able to make the most of their additional time at home while other workers were pushed to breaking point or saw their hours and wages stagnate? Keynes thought that the real permanent problem for mankind is working out how to use the leisure time won by “science and compound interest” to lead a good life. Even amid roiling economic crises and rising prices, some people are soon going to be faced with Keynes’ question as England’s four-day week trials kick off. The task for them is to work out how to, in Keynes’ words, “live wisely, agreeably and well”.