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A four day week: For the win or for the birds?

Over the past decade, the demand for a four-day working week has become a central part of some of the most interesting elements of the new electoral left.  

Captivated by what previously seemed a tangible possibility of capturing the machinery of the state, in recent years young activists and policymakers have pitched the four-day week as one pillar of a wider transformation of work and capitalism.  

Ideas of a ‘post-work’ society or ‘luxury communism’, underpinned by policies like the universal basic income and universal basic services, promised to escape the broken relationship between work, welfare and ceaseless economic growth.  

But recent defeats of left electoral projects in the UK, the US and elsewhere have deprived advocates of the measure of an obvious political route to its implementation.  

However, today, even as politics resets to the centre in the wake of populism and pandemic, this radically reformist demand extends its reach. Notably, the pandemic has created a baseline demand for a better work-life balance among a new, somewhat less radical, audience left unjustifiably burnt-out by remote working.  

Simultaneously, studies have showed the policy’s positive effect on productivity and wellbeing. However, some of the evidence cited in support of the measure remains questionable, and its implementation at a national level in a country like the UK seems riddled with obstacles. 

So: does the four-day week represent a pragmatic proposal for the near-future of work, or an impossible pipedream for its far-flung outer reaches? 

 

It’s not all Zoom and gloom 

There is little new about the demand for economy-wide reduced working hours. Famously, booze-loving workers in the nineteenth century resisted the onset of industrial work rhythms by taking Mondays back for themselves – the so-called ‘Saint Monday’ depicted in the painting above.  

Subsequently, reductions in working hours have been a recurring theme of trade union organizing and bargaining since the inception of the labour movement.  

As working hours stabilised in the mid-twentieth century around historically low levels, union focus switched to bargaining for improving, rather than reducing, work, seeking better pay to sustain richer lives of leisure and pleasure at the weekend. 

Today, working hours have re-entered the frame but this time around, with some exceptions, organized labour is not necessarily leading demands for a shorter work week. Rather, pressure for a four-day week is being led by non-union activists, think tanks and younger professionals whose experience of work has been politicised by precariousness and the pandemic.  

For the latter group, the pandemic saw a long-standing extension of working hours peak with remote working intensifying domination by devices in the home.  

Teamed with the idea of a ‘right to disconnect’, the proposal of a four-day week presents professionals with the opportunity to stymy spiralling white-collar working hours, preserving and expanding much-needed free time with friends and family. 

For the professionals, academics and other desk-based workers who promote the four-day week most avidly, the pandemic has epitomised a status of overemployment, creating an excess of hours far beyond those wanted or required. 

Nonetheless, it is important not to overstate the proportion of workers who find themselves in the same Zoomed-out position.  

Think, for instance, of the key or essential workers who have continued to leave home and work on-site or in-person in a variety of different sectors over the course of the pandemic. The project-based or on-call character of this work make a radical reconfiguration of working hours hard to envisage, whatever its merits. 

Moreover, underemployment – where workers desire more hours, or more stable hours, than they can access at present – has been a major trend of the UK labour market in recent years.  

Recent research by centre-right think-tank the Social Market Foundation found that, whilst many ‘white collar’ workers welcome a four-day week, employees in undervalued, underprotected sectors like care and hospitality desired more hours, not less. 

Many employees in such sectors piece together working weeks from numerous precarious or part-time contracts, with little by way of rights or security. For these workers, enforcing employment rights and strengthening power and voice in the workplace would arguably be more of a pressing priority than a reduction in working hours. 

Indeed, across the economy, workers suffer a lack of power and voice sparked in part by the decline of trade unions. This makes it hard to take advantage of top-down restructures of work, whatever their auspicious aims. 

 

The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure? 

Even for those professionals most keen on a four-day week as a response to the extension and intensification of working hours, a shorter contractual week might not live up to expectations.  

Caught between the domineering management style of contemporary corporate life and our inner bosses compelling greater productivity and effort from within, a four-day week could easily flip back to five with one day’s less pay. 

The constant cycle of deadlines associated with project-based working could also force workers to exhaust themselves completing what was formerly five days of work in four, intensifying labour in the process. 

This last aspect is particularly relevant where cases for the four-day week emphasise various kinds of evidence that shorter working hours make workers more productive and focused. 

Moreover, work doesn’t stop when we down tools for the day. Take, for instance, the unequal burden upon women of unpaid reproductive work in the home. For some people, leisure time is hardly a time of pleasure and home is not always a happy place to be. 

The expansion of free time also necessitates the expansion of the kinds of work that make a world of leisure possible in the first place – requiring a redistribution of work and workers to sectors like retail and hospitality currently characterised by precariousness, low wages and poorly protected terms and conditions.  

There is also the problem of having the material underpinnings to lead a rich and fulfilled social and cultural life with the free time we have at our disposal. A majority of respondents in the Social Market Foundation study indicated they would prioritise higher pay over lower working hours – as workers have tended to when bargaining with employers for much of post-war period.  

Many proponents of a four-day week rightly guarantee no reduction in wages, but whether this pans out in reality depends on from where the push for the policy arises, and the power of workers to dictate its terms and conditions. 

 

The fruits of struggles yet to come 

On many of these fronts, the popular impression of the feasibility of a four-day week prematurely assumes the fruits of struggles yet to come. In spite of its credible vision of a more emancipated future, foundations would need to be in place that are arguably not there at present. 

For instance, many of the worries about work intensification raised above would be addressed were workers in a better position of power to be able to dictate the terms and times of work in the first place.  

The question here is precisely who the demand for a four-day week is addressed to, and from where the demand arises. There is a danger it becomes the whim of gadfly managers and governments rather than something compelled by workers themselves. 

Done correctly, issues around overemployment and underemployment, proponents claim, could be addressed by the redistribution of work that a four-day week makes possible. A reduction in the workloads of the overworked would facilitate new opportunities for those in search of more hours.  

Unless the market is trusted to accomplish these outcomes, this likely implies a level of state intervention and economic planning that would spook capital and possibly even some voters. 

Regardless, any such scheme assumes that after decades of underinvestment in skills and lifelong learning that we have a workforce capable of adapting to those opportunities as they emerge. Solving this requires long-term interventions in supply, through retraining and reskilling, and demand, refocusing the economy towards more skilled jobs. 

This is not to mention the difficulties of implementing a four-day week in globally integrated industries with close-run production and supply chains where clients and customers will be sensitive to any shift in expectations around the time taken for a job. This would be a specific issue in the large, unionised manufacturers where such work hours reductions would be most likely negotiated first.  

All these issues call for a careful, coordinated approach to the four-day week collectively bargained between labour, capital and the state. This would likely proceed on a sector-by-sector basis with a mixture of short-, medium- and long-term targets around skills, job creation and productivity.  

Thankfully, the most well-thought-out and comprehensive policy plans for shorter working hours in the UK, such as Autonomy’s The Shorter Working Week: A Radical and Pragmatic Proposal, provide answers to many of the issues raised above.  

At their best, these proposals circumvent some of the short circuits in how the four-day week is popularly conceived by grounding them in a wider attempt to manage the uneven impacts of shorter working hours by building worker power from below. 

Unfortunately, however, the UK has simply not sustained the kind of coordinated economy capable of pulling much of this off without a wider – and at present unlikely – transformation of the relationship between the state, capital and labour. Compare it to the quite different political economy of, say, Germany, and the difference is clear. 

It wasn’t always this way. In mid-twentieth century Britain, time, wage and productivity bargains were negotiated in a tripartite fashion between unions, business and government. Back then, productivity was the basis for work-time reductions rather than, as now, work-time reductions being seen as a means to greater productivity.  

But the virtuous circle of worker power, productive investment and productivity gains that underpinned that social and industrial compromise is no more, with all three declining in an age of financialisation and deindustrialisation. This makes it hard to argue for work time reduction as a response to rising productivity. 

Emulating the German kurzarbeit scheme for short-hours working at times of crisis, there were some signs that the UK was seeking to resurrect a kind tripartite bargaining with the development and introduction of the furlough scheme in the wake of COVID-19. In scenes reminiscent of the long post-war period, the Chancellor stood on the steps of 11 Downing Street flanked by the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry. 

In this context, many consider the pandemic a perfect turning point in which to be pushing proposals like the four-day week. And, indeed, the signs are that COVID-19 could recreate the conditions for the kind of industrial coordination needed to pull off such schemes.  

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For the reasons given above, the four-day week may seem impractical in the short term. But with talk of ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’ backed up by a more interventionist national industrial policy across the political spectrum, the medium-to-long term picture offers proponents some measure of hope.  

Few workers would sniff at the prospect of more free time to do what they will, particularly on the proviso that their pay stayed the same, and it is unfair to pooh-pooh the idea of a four-day week on principle. The problems with the measure arise from the forlorn character of the world of work towards which the policy is addressed, and the obstacles it poses to radical, rather than more achievable and piecemeal, change. 

Frederick Harry Pitts is an editor of Futures of Work and a Lecturer in Work, Employment, Organisation & Public Policy at the University of Bristol School of Management. This is an extended version of a piece originally commissioned and published by We Are Management, the University of Bristol School of Management blog. It expands on points raised in an interview about the four-day week with BBC Radio Bristol in late July, which you can listen to here.

Image credit: Saint Monday in the Prater