It seems the idea of a four-day working week is going mainstream. Onwards to 21 hours?


How do we get time and space to be the citizens that this century - not just an anthropocene, but also a technium - demands of us? Automation, and the environmental need to turn our attention from consumerism to other passions, can give us the resources to push back the frontiers of paid work. But we need political and systemic imagination, and boldness, to make the call on those resources.

We note two items this week which give us hope that the dreams of utopians are beginning to mesh with official politics. The think-tank Autonomy has brought out a 95-page report on the viability and credibility of a four-day week. The usually staid New Statesman, in the words of George Eaton, is full of praise for it:

“The time we spend in work is neither natural nor inevitable,” the report notes. “Instead, the amount of time we spend in work is a political question.” Crucially, Autonomy emphasises that a four-day week is not just radical but credible. Research has long shown that, far from lowering productivity, shorter working hours increase it by reducing physical and mental illness, absenteeism, worker turnover and early retirement.

There is no positive correlation between long worker hours and productivity: Germany is more productive than the UK (by 26.7 per cent) but works fewer hours on average; Mexico and Greece are less productive, but work more.  And for those part-time workers who wish to work more, a four-day week would aid the redistribution of time. 

Increased investment in technology, as well as a higher minimum wage to raise the cost of labour, would accelerate automation and make a four-day week conceivable. A recent trial by the New Zealand trust manager Perpetual Guardian proved so successful – higher productivity, reduced stress – that the firm is considering making it permanent. 

Employers would be incentivised to improve the UK’s lamentable record of investment in machinery, robots and ICT: in 2017, Britain had just 33 robot units for every 10,000 employees, compared with 93 in the US, 170 in Germany and 154 in Sweden.

Greater productivity, the report notes, would eliminate the need to reduce wages in line with working hours. It argues for an extension of sectoral collective bargaining (the UK currently has the second-lowest level of coverage in Europe) to enable trade unions, businesses and governments to achieve “the correct balance between time and income”. 

Further benefits of a four-day week include a reduced burden on healthcare services (poor mental health at work is estimated to cost employers £33-42bn, or 2 per cent of GDP, a year); greater environmental sustainability through a reduction in the number of commutes and an increase in low-carbon activities (such as walking or cycling instead of driving, and cooking with fresh ingredients rather than heating energy-intensive frozen food products); and increased gender equality by encouraging men to bear more of the burden of unpaid work and care. 

To this end, Autonomy argues for the introduction in law of a new “UK Working Time Directive” (based on the European Working Time Directive) that would decrease annually with a medium-term target of achieving a full-time working week of 32 hours (or four days) by 2025.

All good news. Our friend Rich Mason - now at the RSA, but once a tribune of People Power Brum (see his piece here) - has being working on shorter working week issues also. His blog this week does a big overview, and covers a recent New Zealand experiment:

The early results [on the four day week] are in, and they’re encouraging. A much-cited study from New Zealand has yielded very encouraging outcomes. Financial advice company Perpetual Guardian shifted its entire workforce to four days.

The result: productivity remained steady, meaning no financial loss for the company; meanwhile, workers were less stressed, showed stronger leadership, commitment, and felt a much-improved work-life balance. In Sweden, a two-year trial where retirement home workers saw their week cut to 30 hours resulted in healthier staff, a better work environment and lower unemployment.

…What’s so appealing about the New Zealand trial is it apparently delivers all the benefits of a four-day week for no cost, as if by magic. Workers consolidate their work into 4 days, and their employer can keep their pay packets the same, thanks to a bump in productivity. As Perpetual Guardian’s boss proudly declared, “There’s no downside”.

To some this might seem too good to be true. But to others, it’s a lesson that’s long overdue. Many suspect that the actual, useful work done by the modern worker could be done in far fewer hours. The UK’s productivity continues to languish – down again in the last quarter – and many point the finger at presenteeism, or ‘bullshit’ taking over our jobs, or other ingrained cultural factors as a major part of the problem. Adopting a four-day week tomorrow could be the spur we all need to loose these shackles and simply start working less and better.

More here. We have good memories, and are still struck by the New Economics Foundation 2010 report on 21 Hours - which seems a better target to reach for, and even more viable in our age of automation and climate urgency.