The Day Is Dawning On a Four-Day Work Week

Lambert: More time to do other, more important stuff…

By Karen Foster, Associate Professor, Sociology and Social Anthropology and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, Dalhousie University. Originally published at The Conversation.

Like any crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to rethink how we do things.

As we near the 100-day mark since the pandemic was declared, one area getting a significant attention is the workplace, where a window is opening for good ideas to move from the fringes to the mainstream.

For example, when millions more Canadians started working from home, many businesses were forced to experiment with telecommuting. Interestingly, many now say they’ll continue after the pandemic passes, because it benefits employers and employees alike.

Another idea, less widely tested than telecommuting, is generating buzz: the four-day work week. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the possibility of a shortened work week as a way to divvy up jobs, encourage local tourism, help with work-life balance and increase productivity.

As a sociologist who teaches about work and wrote a book about productivity, I believe she’s right.

Not a Compressed Schedule

A four-day work week must not be confused with a compressed schedule that has workers squeeze 37.5 to 40 hours of work into four days instead of five. For reasons that should be clearer below, that won’t help us now.

A true four-day workweek entails full-timers clocking about 30 hours instead of 40. There are many reasons why this is appealing today: families are struggling to cover child care in the absence of daycares and schools; workplaces are trying to reduce the number of employees congregating in offices each day; and millions of people have lost their jobs.

A shorter work week could allow parents to cobble together child care, allow workplaces to stagger attendance and, theoretically, allow the available work to be divided among more people who need employment.

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The most progressive shorter work week entails no salary reductions. This sounds crazy, but it rests on peer-reviewed research into shorter work weeks, which finds workers can be as productive in 30 hours as they are in 40, because they waste less time and are better-rested.

Shorter work weeks reduce the number of sick days taken, and on their extra day off, employees don’t use the office’s toilet paper or utilities, reducing their employer’s costs. Therefore, while it is counter-intuitive, it’s possible for people to work less at the same salary while improving their employer’s bottom line. That people might have to spend more of their own money on toilet paper is a concession most workers would probably accept.

The same body of research also has more predictable findings: people like working less.

Entrenched Morality of Work

If it makes this much sense, why don’t we have a four-day week already? It turns out this question is more than 150 years old.

Some of the answer pertains to the logistics involved in transforming our whole system of work, that’s not the entire answer. After all, the work week has been reduced before, so it can technically be done again.

The rest of the reason is rooted in capitalism and class struggle.

Thinkers from Paul Lafargue (“The Right to Be Lazy,” first published in 1883) to Bertrand Russell (“In Praise of Idleness,” from 1932) and Kathi Weeks (“The Problem with Work,” from 2012) have concluded we resist worktime reductions in the face of supportive evidence — and our own desires for more leisure — because of the entrenched morality of work and the resistance on the part of “the rich” to “the idea that the poor should have leisure,” in Russell’s words.

We are extremely attached to the idea that hard work is virtuous, idle hands are dangerous and people with more free time can’t be trusted.

Four-day Work Weeks Floated in the 1930s

Nobody is suggesting evil governments conspire with evil bosses to keep powerless people busy. As historian Benjamin Hunnicutt has shown, there was significant interest in shorter work hours in the 1920s and 30s, when the 30-hour week was touted as a way to “share” the work among the Great Depression’s unemployed and underemployed citizens.

Even industrialists W. K. Kellogg and Henry Ford supported a six-hour day because they believed more rest would make for more productive workers. But Hunnicutt’s research in Work Without End reveals that some employers cut wages when they cut work hours, and when employees fought back, they dropped their demands for shorter work hours and focused instead on wage increases.

In the complex push and pull of capitalism, eventually even the New Deal, which influenced policy and discourse in Canada, shifted away from its early demands for more leisure toward demands for more work.

It’s quite possible we will do the same in our COVID-19 moment, and beg to be put back to work five days a week when this is all over.

But we have new reasons for considering shorter work weeks, and they might be more widely persuasive. It is also possible that we have finally given up on the false promise that working longer will translate into better lives. The four-day work week could be another wild idea that makes it through the pandemic’s open policy window.The Conversation

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

28 comments

  1. L

    It is interesting the PRC, which did a better job of containing COVID is back to 40 hour weeks+ in an effort to get their economy going. We may need to adopt 30 just to compensate for our horrific mismanagement.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      They aren’t really – there is a huge unemployment and underemployment problem right now in China as lots of companies just haven’t taken on all their previous staff. They even tried relaxing the rules on street trading last week (largely banned in most cities) to allow the unemployed to make an income, but this week quickly reversed this decision (an indication, incidentally, that there is some discord and disquiet within the party leadership as Li Keqiang, the Premier, was known to be strongly in favour).

      In fact, one of the huge problems for China is the generally low level of per person productivity, mostly because people are paid to sit around for long hours doing nothing much at all – rather than have a proper system of social protection and public pensions.

      Reply
      1. vlade

        They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. Well known phenomenon in countries run by communist regimes.

        Reply
  2. Ashburn

    Surprised the article makes no mention of a significant savings in commuter costs as well as energy savings. As someone who spent twenty five years commuting into Washington, DC from the suburbs, the last twelve years spending over 3 hours per day on public busses, I love the idea. Yes, telework (for those who can manage it) does ease that a bit but the savings would be significant.

    Reply
    1. Jim Young

      Depends on what can be done at home with so many different situations. We older folks love to get more done at home, or like I did, driving in well before the rush hours, getting in at 5 AM and usually 5-1/2 hours of very productive work done before 10:30. I could have done that at home, since the kids were in High School, and I had a nice home office. After 10:30, it seemed a better time to go around to visit the engineers and get their inputs or feedback on the manuals I was writing, or get copies of drawing updates, along with the personal cross feed that helps us coordinate efforts better. By noon, lunch was welcome in a great cafeteria, with bigger collections of people on one or more projects, followed by another couple of hours (not as “productive” in the usual terms, but at least allowing reflection on what I’d want to take home (at 2PM if they’d let me to beat the traffic).

      I wanted to try 3 days at the plant and 2 at home, or the Kellogg’s schedule they kept up to 1980, I thought four 8 hour days. What ever it was their workers still talked about how they got more done in what I thought was 32 hours a week than 40 (and they still seemed pretty good at 40). I offered to work 4 hours in the morning, and come in every day at 10 AM (missing the rush hour), and work to 7 PM at the plant (to avoid the rush hours at least, but they weren’t buying it, so I left.

      Reply
  3. cripes

    Yep.

    At the end of 1930, just after the start of the Great Depression, the Kellogg’s cereal plant in Battle Creek, Michigan, replaced its three eight-hour shifts per day with four six-hour shifts, working 30 hours weekly. Until 1985.

    Germany has demonstrated that even economic contractions do not have to be accompanied by a human toll in massive lay-offs.

    It was never about efficiency or productivity or protestant work ethic.

    Always about labor discipline and scarcity and fear.

    Reply
    1. Jim Young

      Oops I think, it would take five 6 hour shifts, and the times I visited the plant it seemed they said it was four 8 hour shifts (32 hr week, IIRC).

      The most productive and highest quality of life shift I was able to implement in the Air Force was a three and a half day schedule with one team handling 2 operator shifts and one maintenance shift. They hated the idea of the half day before it was implemented, but I used it for an all hands coordination meeting once a week so everyone knew what everyone else was doing, thinking about, even our dedicated supply guy providing shipping status. They also got to compare notes on College courses and other opportunities and had super stable schedules to arrange trades to accommodate more college hours than any other shop I’d aver been in.

      The half day was also necessary to stay within the rules about not having more than three days off without taking leave. About two months after we started I asked the guy who had complained that all they did was work when they were at work, doing a normal 40 hour week’s worth of work in as little as 28 hours (he didn’t have an answer right away when I asked him if he’d rather be at work 40 hours).

      He had been the most opposed to the half day, having to get in uniform and come to the base for such a short day, but after two months, I noticed he had become much more relaxed, and efficient, as all the others had (the better coordination and cross feed seemed to let them catch up all the low priority work, giving them more time to be creative with other ways to streamline operations). We got our money’s worth out of them, and I dare say they developed skills that served them anywhere after in civilian jobs.

      Half of us were always on standby 24/7 (no extra pay for that, even when we put in 72 hours straight), and 100% of our eligibles got promoted (when the field average was 13%), since they had to spend any extra time in the full 8 hour maintenance shift studying the the course material for the promotion test. Some complained mightily that the promotion test covered none of our Systems Command special equipment, but I was able to convince them that was actually and advantage. The tests were written by the same person(s) that wrote the study material, so the rest of the field techs who worked on it thought they knew enough without having to spend much time test material. My guys had the advantage of knowing the answers the test author was looking for, so they cleaned house on the guys that actually worked on the stuff in the test.

      They also learned more of the book versions of management, and with our weekly half day meeting, they got a lot more feedback on interactions with management.

      We were assigned to another command around that time, and my new boss was terrified that I hadn’t filled out the 2,000 or so checklist items they used for standard Air Force Procedures (I only did the section on accounting for furniture, and test equipment calibration, since we used a Special Concepts and Procedures manual for the Systems Command special equipment that was too rare to get incorporated into the standard logistics system (with so many specialists in little parts of the system). We learned how to do the jobs of almost all the specialists, and because of the wider areas we stayed up with, often did it better than the lower echelons in the specialties.

      The payoff came when my new boss brought in the Major who was going to inspect our operation. I started the briefing and a bit into it noticed how irritated he was becoming when I said all our guys knew everything going on related to our shop. He challenged me with a snarly, “So anyone in the shop could give me your briefing?” “Sure,” I replied before he picked the lowest ranking, youngest guy in the shop (the guy that didn’t want to do the half day thing, as it happened). He gave him a better briefing than I could, so good they gave us a rare for the time Outstanding rating.

      Fortunately, we had no problems keeping our great universal healthcare (while we were on active duty), and something Walter Reuther wanted, but couldn’t convince his own United Auto Workers to back.

      Imagine, employers could hire whoever had the skills or potential they needed, without worrying about employees with conditions, themselves or in their families, that would make insurance prohibitively expensive. And workers wouldn’t be desperately bound to an employer to keep even the barely affordable insurance they could lose so many ways. Healthy educated workers, used in the most productive life balances, let us make great progress once, and should be even better in the future if we choose to let them run a bit.

      Reply
  4. Left in Wisconsin

    Nice post, though I’m not sure I buy the headline. Nor do I think that this is really is simple bosses-workers issue. Academia illustrates as well as anywhere that maybe the most crucial linchpin of PMC “merit” identity is “hard work,” even more so than “talent” or “skill.” No academic that I know will admit to working “only” a 40-hour week (yes, many of them are lying, which only goes to show how important the perception is), much less advocating for a shorter one.

    The old view of pluralism as a democratic principle is rightly discredited (CW Mills showed 50 years ago that it’s not an egalitarian-democratic society if all the elites in the different spheres of life are a single community), but one of the things we have lost by discarding it is the notion that there ARE separate spheres of life, that work needs to be limited so people can exercise/experience other aspects of their lives. More than ever it is expected that our work selves are our dominant if not total selves. The split in society between the elites who unquestioningly accept this and the non-elites who don’t is a major cleavage in modern society.

    Reply
  5. Henry Moon Pie

    The Russell quote highlights the real issue. Those at the top of our society fear us, and the main way they respond to that fear is by holding firm to the primary form of social control under Capitalism: the “job.” Everyone needs a boss, they believe (with themselves excepted), and so our society is structured as a complex hierarchy whose main glue is economic necessity. The bus boy has to have a “job” to eat, so he puts up with his abusive boss, the restaurant manager. But that manager has a “job” too, and she reports to the ever-demanding owner of the restaurant. Dealing with the virus has reminded us that the owner has bosses too, especially the bankers on whom he’s dependent for funding in the best of times and in Covid times, he’d better know his banker well, or he can kiss that survival money from the feds good-bye.

    That’s the kind of society that makes our billionaires happy: a society where all the little people have someone else to report to. There are at least two problems with this configuration. First, it’s very, very fragile. Shut down the bars for two weeks, and everything goes to hell. Second, there’s the matter of the climate emergency. All this churn, related more to social control than to production of goods necessary for human survival and flourishing, is speeding us toward disaster.

    We need to sever the connection between survival and the “job” both on moral grounds and practical necessity.

    Reply
    1. anon42

      Beautiful comment, thanks.

      Dealing with the virus has reminded us that the owner has bosses too, especially the bankers on whom he’s dependent for funding in the best of times … Henry Moon Pie

      It’s called the “rat-race” and a major root of it (obviously) is government privileges for usurers.

      Reply
  6. PlutoniumKun

    There is a lot of interest in this among Unions in Europe, and there is surprisingly little real opposition (so far) from employers. The evidence that it can do wonders for productivity in many jobs is actually very strong. It may well be that as part of changing work patterns post Covid it might be one of those ‘out there’ ideas which is actually achievable.

    One problem though which I think some companies have faced is that many of the savings can’t be achieved in reality because – to take one example – they have to maintain offices during ‘expected’ working hours. So it might only be achievable if the notion of a three day weekend is set by law, although that would no doubt be opposed tooth and nail by employers as in so many sectors this could mean having to pay extra overtime, etc..

    Reply
  7. Alternate Delegate

    I was able to negotiate a four-day 32-hour schedule, back when I had more individual negotiating leverage than I do now (non unionized workplace) and, somewhat to my surprise, I have been able to maintain it since.

    Both the work life and personal life benefits are as great as you might imagine. The productivity has worked out for the employer as well. Downsides have included a (fortunately fairly mild) level of suspicion and envy from coworkers. Since it hasn’t seemed possible to extend this option to other coworkers, I have had to be somewhat discreet about my schedule. But it’s not hidden, and is widely known. I would wish for this schedule to be more broadly available to others.

    One issue can be the need to push back against demands for extra hours, in the absence of clear provisions for comp time or overtime pay – even just at a flat rate of overtime pay – for so-called “exempt” workers (e.g., exempt from overtime pay laws). There’s always the employer who thinks “forty hours” means they really get to extract 44 or 48 or 52 hours at no extra pay. There’s no point in negotiating for 32 hours in that environment.

    You’d be right back to 40+ hours, at a lower pay level. There’s always a “one-time need” or “urgent deadline”, and somehow the extra demands never go away. Workers need to make sure they get paid for every hour they work. Then we can get to 32.

    Reply
    1. Anarcissie

      Through luck, I acquired a skilled craft (computer programming) which, in the era in which I was doing moneywork, was well-paid and also the sort of thing that could be turned into contract work at a good rate. Eventually I was able to reduce my standard of living to suit a 3-day week. In my most recent work incarnation but one, I did allow my employers to cheat a little on extending hours, but by and large it was understood that more time meant more charges, and I recommend it to all. It has a wonderfully clarifying effect on management’s perception of what is needed and what isn’t.

      It seems to me that 24 hours a week is quite enough to throw away on helping the rich get richer, etc. Right livelihood might be different, but it’s very hard to get.

      Reply
  8. FreeMarketApologist

    In the US, companies already try to schedule hourly workers for less than 30 hours a week so they don’t have to offer healthcare (thank you very much, ACA). So they should be lining up behind Prof. Foster to shout the joys of fewer hours worked per week.

    For the salaried PMC, companies can introduce a 4-day week instead of raises. The current employee will benefit (only in having more free time), but it will be a long time before their salary moves up again. (“We increased your per-hour equivalent by 25%! It will take years for inflation to catch up. What more do you want?”)

    The motivated, obsessive, or aggressive will work the ‘optional’ 10 hours to get the promotion, the larger bonus, or because they find it more meaningful than other things. Some will spend that 10 hours on the golf course, schmoozing with the boss or clients. It’s work, but doesn’t look like it, and it’s one way to get ahead.

    Sure, give the choice of 30 hour weeks to everybody. Do let me know who really benefits.

    Reply
    1. False Solace

      My employer cut everyone’s pay 10-15% in honor of Covid. They didn’t bother to cut our hours though. Considering that we were getting 1-2% raises before this, I wonder how many years it will take us to catch up to what we had.

      Reply
      1. Craig

        We didn’t have any pay cuts, just layoffs. But our merit increases have been paltry for years, eliminated this year. Our bonuses were finally eliminated last year. And there are plenty of people working 60+ hour work weeks. I, myself, have been trapped in jobs for my company at 90+ hours a week. No way most companies would go for a 4-day work week. Many already consider 7-days to be fair game.

        Reply
    2. Chris

      To say nothing of those who are paid on a billable hour model. A lot would have to change for Americans to give up their working habits.

      Reply
  9. Valerie Long Tweedie

    I think it is unrealistic – no matter how productive the studies say workers are – that employers are just going to cut hours and keep pay and benefits at the same rate. While I would actually work for 20% less if I could have a 4 day work week, most people have too much debt and couldn’t afford the pay cut. We are trapped in this culture of consumerism and debt. It is sad and the quality of our lives is lesser for it.

    Reply
    1. Aumua

      Well it probably seemed impossible a mere two weeks ago that we would be seriously talking about defunding and/or abolishing police departments. And yet here we are.

      Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I agree with you — a reduction in hours with the same pay won’t happen because of productivity studies or as a way to reduce unemployment. I might believe there could be a reduction in hours and a reduction in pay, as well as the loss of employer paid health insurance. I believe employers are quite comfortable with high unemployment as long as the police can maintain control. I don’t believe employers or businesses care about efficiency as much as the economists claim. Those who rule us care about power and control more than they care about money. They already have more money than they could possibly spend. They also care about their place in the hierarchy — a place elevated by holding those below them down and whenever possible pushing them further down.

      The forty-hour work week had nothing to do with efficiency or concern for worker happiness or worker needs, or the greater good of Society. It was hard won by decades of union and wildcat actions.

      Reply
  10. Anarcissie

    I believe the 40-hour work week was settled upon because it maximizes production-consumption — the worker has to be let out of the pen to go acquire and consume the products and help recreate the scarcity which capitalism demands. It may also help keep the proles quiet by using up enough of their time and energy to make the development of troublesome avocations like political activism or the development of alternate economic capabilities less likely.

    Reply
  11. Chris

    Along with other things to consider with the coronavirus, will we see an analysis on this site discussing the now ubiquitous response “riots cured the virus”? Because from what I’m seeing with my friends and acquaintances the big change from this past week is the constant meme of “I lost my livelihood for nothing because the minute you wanted this to be about race we didn’t have to worry about social distancing.” And I can’t see this getting better regardless of what we see from infection trends next week. If more people are sick, we’ll get lots of finger wagging about how the protests and riots should never have happened. If we get no significant increase in infected, then people will say all the shutdown was wrong and liberals tanked the economy to attack Trump.

    And I think the same thing will happen with the suggestion of a 4 day work week. All suggestions that are originally virus related will be viewed through this kind of a political lens going forward.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      Because of course it must always be tribal with us good and they bad.

      Viruses don’t care about anything. All they do is reproduce frequently killing while doing so.

      The police have gotten steadily more criminal, violent, murderous, and uncontrollable for a few decades.

      Federal, state, and municipal governments have all been incompetent and unserious about the epidemic. Now was a bad time to have protests about this even with a man murdered on the street.

      However, the police being brutally repressive and using chemicals that seriously mess up the entire respiratory system, they ensured that the disease would spread.

      Congress has deliberately refused aid to the bottom 95% of the population while giving trillions to the already wealthy.

      All of these things are true at the same time and making it a Democratic or Republican thing is a fool’s game.

      Reply
  12. ObjectiveFunction

    “Nobody is suggesting evil governments conspire with evil bosses to keep powerless people busy.”

    [/mad falsetto Amadeus laughter]

    Reply
  13. K teh

    The day is dawning on a 3 1/2 – 4 hr workday, which is much more profitable to your spouse, children and community, because it removes the fascist state from your life.

    Reply
  14. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    No mention of Bob Black’s masterful ‘Abolition of Work’ – it’s free online. I’m hearing it said in certain predictable quarters that the reason for the outburst of angry protest is down to proles with too much time to layabout and nurse their ‘jealousy’ against the meritocratic aristocracy.

    Reply
  15. J

    Search term: “30 for 40”. This is not a new idea in U.S. or world labor strategy. It has been tried, and succeeded and failed, for a variety of reasons. A movement that does not know its past is a weak movement.

    Reply

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