Time, please: has the moment come for a four-day working week?

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Illustration by Mark Winter

We were promised lots of things when we downed tools in the fields and made the trek indoors to take up increasingly industrialised jobs. Fewer working hours. Fewer working days, even. Robot servants. Jetpacks.

Some of that has arrived (hey Siri, play ‘We were promised jetpacks’), but the shorter working week John Maynard Keynes predicted has been elusive. Now Frances O’Grady, the head of the Trades Union Congress, has brought the idea into the news again. Speaking at the TUC annual conference, she argued that technology could deliver us a three day weekend with “decent pay for everyone”.

It’s not a new idea. Various nations and firms have experimented with a shorter week, including a successful trial in New Zealand and a mixed one in Sweden (happiness went up, but so did costs). Amazon ran a pilot programme offering some employees a 30-hour week on 75% pay, while the US state of Utah tried to balance a budget deficit by shrinking the federal working week.

Tugging at this thread reveals all manner of dichotomies. How practical / breakdown-inducing would a shorter working week of around 30 hours be for those who already feel there aren’t enough of them in the day, for example? How would companies make up the shortfall in available labour (which was one of the problems with Sweden’s experiment)?

Also, would the trimmed timetable even be enforceable in a world where we can all be at work on our phones while apparently having dinner with friends or family? Work is increasingly fragmented; wouldn’t our hours just creep back up, seeping into our newly-liberated free time like rising damp?

Then there’s the money thing. No good having an extra day off if reduced pay means we have to sit very still, trying not to do anything that costs money, on that day. Or get a second (or third) job to offset the difference.

On the flipside, we probably all sense that we simply make our work fill the time allocated to it, much as we can always clutter up our desks, cars and homes, however much they increase or decrease in size. We’d adapt – and there are plenty of theories about how productive we are after a few hours anyway (exec summary: not very).

Plus, reducing the number of hours a job needs would open it up to more people: working parents, for example, who have other demands on their time. Stress could fall, along with the related healthcare costs. We don’t all work nine-to-five now (sorry, Dolly), and that structure was the result of labour riots and Henry Ford anyway, so surely there’s scope for a fresh look at the timesheet.

It’s all hypothetical, of course, and any society-wide change would surely take decades, with or without legislation. Perhaps the most tantalising question of all, though, is this: what could we achieve with that extra time? What might be written, created, invented?

Maybe that’s the way we’ll finally get our jetpacks.

Posted on 21st September 2018 in Culture
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