Experiments with a Four-Day Workweek

Jonah here. This is part one of a two part series on working time reduction. Part two will be published next weekend.

Workers in the UK are participating in an ambitious experiment with a 32-hour workweek. The pilot project, involving over 3,000 workers in seventy companies, is being organized by 4 Day Week Global, associated with the think tank Autonomy.

The latest in a series of international test cases of a 32-hour week, the project is part of a global push to reduce weekly working hours. In Iceland, between 2015 and 2019, a government-backed, multi-year experiment with a four-day week proved an “overwhelming success,” and led a majority of the workforce to opt for a shorter workweek. Recently, similar experiments have been launched or are under serious consideration in Spain, New Zealand, Scotland, and elsewhere.

A four-day week is not the only approach to reducing working-hours under consideration. In the Swedish city of Gothenburg, for instance, workers at the Svartedalens retirement facility adopted the six-hour workday, as part of a government-sponsored trial. The results were significant improvements in their health and well-being, and a rise in worker engagement and productivity.

Many on the left have found these initiatives to be inspiring and instructive. They see in the four-day week the promise of improved work-life balance and a less dehumanizing work environment; shortening work-hours offers a route to greater gender equality at work, better employee health, and fewer problems of stress, burnout, and overwork. Supporters also argue that cutting the length of the workweek can lead to substantial productivity gains for employers – one of the benefits of having a happier, healthier, and more energized workforce.

These experiments in working time reduction were backed by powerful labor unions, and received substantial financial backing from the state, which helped to subsidize the costs of lowering weekly hours without any equivalent cut in pay (so that, in practice, workers saw a bump in their hourly wages).

The current push for a shorter workweek is the most recent phase in a long-term fight over working-time. During the 1970’s, labor and the left across much of Western Europe launched campaigns for a reduction in weekly work hours. In the crucible of economic crisis and escalating class struggle which marked that decade, left-wing trade unions adopted plans to shorten the workweek to 35-hours. By reducing the length of a full-time workweek, these unions hoped to “humanize” work, while redistributing the gains of rising productivity to workers in the form of additional time-off. They also hoped to counter the growth of unemployment, by compelling employers to make up the lost hours through new hiring.

Among the key battles that resulted were two bitter strikes for the 35-hour workweek in West Germany in 1978 and 1984, the latter of which led to a historic agreement on working time reduction in the metalworking sector.

But the culmination of all labor’s efforts happened in France, where, at the end of the 1990’s, the 35-hour week was introduced as the legal duration of work for nearly all private-sector employees. This reform, accomplished by two pieces of legislation known as the Aubry Laws (named after then Labor Minister Martine Aubry), made France a pioneer in the field of working-time reduction and a test-case for the fight over the four-day workweek.

The legislation establishing the 35-hour workweek was proposed by prime minister Lionel Jospin’s Plural Left coalition in 1997. For Jospin and his cabinet (including his Socialist Party, the Communists and the Greens), this law was intended primarily to counter joblessness. At a time when France’s economic outlook was dire, with unemployment in the double digits, the government wanted to cut weekly work-hours in order to boost job growth.

In this regard, the measure was relatively successful. As a 2014 parliamentary report on the effects of the law concluded:

Between 1997 and 2001, unemployment decreased in France in unprecedented proportions (particularly between 1999 and 2000) following the coming-into-force of the first Aubry law. The number of unemployed people dropped by 350,000 in one year. This was the Aubry law’s main objective.

The late economist Michel Husson has pointed out that the five years after the first Aubry Law saw nearly two-thirds of all net private-sector job creation in France in the three decades before the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, these new jobs were not the low-wage, part-time variety that have become so common across the developed world. Rather, part-time jobs as a proportion of total employment fell after 1997. Along with a sharp rise in the minimum wage (included in the Aubry legislation as a monthly bonus to compensate low-wage workers whose hours had been cut), this job growth contributed to an overall fall in earnings-related inequality during the five years following the first Aubry law.

In total, researchers estimate that between 1998 and 2010, French workers’ actual weekly hours fell by an average of 2.8 hours; one study concluded that average yearly hours for full-time employees fell by 14%. That included a roughly 8% fall in the first five years alone.
While France wasn’t the only country to move toward shorter working weeks, no other country experienced such a rapid drop in full-time hours.

But if the French experience shows the possibilities for shortening the workweek, it also demonstrates the pitfalls of giving employers too much leeway to shape how working time reduction is carried out.

Next week: Part two of this piece will discuss the complications of, and challenges to, France’s 35-hour workweek.

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  1. Hepativore

    Perhaps somebody who knows more about this sort of thing can enlighten me in more detail, but I thought that in most developed countries, a lot of jobs could have had much shorter work weeks decades ago, due to how much technology and other factors have allowed productivity gains to increase dramatically during the latter half of the 20th century and the 21st century so far.

    As to why this has not happened, correct me if I am wrong, but I thought it has to do with the new ways in which employers can maintain downward pressure on wages, reduce headcounts, new ways to flood labor pools, and cultural expectations in many countries.

    Just how much can the average work week be reduced with no serious tradeoffs if the efficiencies imposed by employers in addition to monopolies/monopsony can be curbed?

  2. jefemt

    A family member worked in the notoriously under-paying non-profit world after a seriously low-wage two-year stint where he learned A LOT and had great training, seminars, support— with Americorps after receiving a generalist Liberal Arts undergrad degree.

    He worked the internet hard to prove and show the HR folks what wages were being paid for equivalent work elsewhere in the US. Many of those places having lower cost of living than our chichified over-the-top cost Little Appalachia of the Rockies.
    He made repeated runs at higher wages, and received begrudging bumps, that never kept pace, or acknowledged his tangible measurable contributions. Then he hit the wall.

    I suggested in his last try that he reserve a plan B in case he got nowhere… keep the same wages/ bennies and go to a 4 day a week schedule. Never was tested— he quit and went on to a completely different sector, walking away from 8 years in non-profit, nearly to the 10-year student loan non-profit debt forgiveness.

    I keep coming back to the PBS Frontline show on AI – Artificial Intelligence- a couple years ago… the folks developing AI were pretty clear and in accord that fully 1/2 jobs will go away in the next decade (8 years now). Job sharing and work reduction seems inevitable. Who will pay the living wage to the part-time job share workforce? Will jobs be shared? Will there be a shortage of Bridge Decks to sleep under?
    Will it be public/ private partnerships, or solely fall on the Gubmint that can print money at will?

    I don’t have a lot of hope, given present policies and leadership of the Powers that be. Or I have full confidence it – and we– will get phuc’d to a fare-the-well!

  3. WillyBgood

    IBEW Local 6 in San Francisco has a 35-hour workweek and I think the pipefitters do also. Of course during booms overtime is rampant, but at least you get paid one and a half to double rates for overtime. I can tell you from experience, a seven hour day can be very productive, as much or better than an eight hour day.

    1. Arizona Slim

      I can personally attest to the fact that when IBEW members come to work, they don’t mess around. They work.

      How do I know this? I had my electrical service upgraded five years ago — had to so I could get air conditioning installed. The electrical contractor did the work on my house and IBEW Local 1116 members ran the line from the Tucson Electric Power pole to my roof.

      It was fun to watch and even more fun to photograph.

  4. Lex

    No work week should ever me more than four days. Five, 8’s is cruel and unusual punishment in the prison of capitalism. I’m willing to compromise and do four, 9’s.

  5. jrkrideau

    @ Hepativore
    From what I have read, a major reason to going to the 40hr (usually 8 X5) work week was because it was more efficient and cost effective. Early “experiments” in Germany in the 1880’s or 90’s suggested this and studies in the British munitions industry during WWI showed that productivity plateaued after 40 hrs. That is, a 48 or plus work week produced the same as a 40 hr workweek. This seems to have been due to accidents, and screw-ups due to fatigued workers. This was for essentially physical labour. BTW Ford did not go to a 5 day 40 hr work week because he was a humanitarian.

    At the moment, I suspect that a lot of employers, irrationally, equate long hours on the job with productivity. In a lot of cases I am dubious. Particularly, if we are looking at brain-work, I, personal opinion only, suspect that shorter hours on the job may result in higher productivity just as the British munitions industry found with physical work.

  6. Mike

    Is it time to brring up the old Trotskyist demand of “30 for 40”- i.e., thirty hours work for forty hours pay? We do realize that 32 hour workweeks under capitalism will never pay a worker for the time he gives up in this way, don’t we?

  7. NotThePilot

    Been really busy the past few months, but I have some free time again. I’ve always loved the idea of a shorter work-week.

    Like the other posters mentioned, I remember hearing somewhere that 6 hours a day is sort of the sweet spot. And that’s from a productivity standpoint (so the best top-line efficiency for the employer).

    It sort of blew my mind when I finally got an explanation (from Karl Marx actually) that employers optimize for surplus value, not efficiency. Once you’ve recouped your labor cost for the day in your first few hours, even if you’re tired & barely adding any value, every minute you work past that is potential surplus for the employer.

    Just as much as the length of the work-week though, I’ve always wondered why everybody has to hyper-specialize into 1 job. It’s an idea that seems to come up a lot less, but I always thought it would be awesome to be diversified across a few jobs. I know I’d love a chance to be out & about for manual labor or a trade a little every week. And from first-hand experience, I say nobody should have to work more than 10 hours a week in food-service unless they absolutely want to.

  8. sd

    Anyone want to take on the entertainment industry?

    The standard work week in the film and tv industry is 60 hours – 5 days at 12 hours per day and ending the week with Fraturdays – 5:00 pm call times with wrap at 5:30 am on Saturday morning to allow for night work.

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