In defence of the four day working week

At the moment the four-day week is a mere pipe dream: but it should be secured as part of a wider package of progressive ideas

At the moment the four-day week is a mere pipe dream: but it should be secured as part of a wider package of progressive ideas

As long as low-income earners work five or more days a week and are still not paid enough to get by without tax credits and housing benefit, a four day week is a distant ambition.  The immediate priority should be ensuring that full-time work as it stands guarantees a fair living wage.

Nevertheless, a shorter working week is a radical goal that would work as part of a broad long-term package of progressive ideas. It would bring overwhelming benefits to health, productivity, employment, family life, the environment and civic society.

Organisations such as the New Economics Foundation support an ambitious 21 hour working week, but as a leading doctor recently argued, the initial goal should be around a 32 hour working week.

Much of the criticism of the four day week comes from looking in isolation at the impact of working fewer hours. A blunt four day week introduced immediately, as a standalone policy, would simply mean a 20% pay cut. Only the wealthiest would be able to take advantage.

A four day week looks much more feasible, however, when considered as part of a broader package of progressive reforms to bring down living costs and raise wages.

Disparate strands of progressive thinking would need to be pulled together to make it work: a genuine living wage should be introduced so that the increased freedom to balance leisure and labour can be extended widely, not just to the most affluent; housing would be the most important living costs to bring down, especially in London, by radically increasing supply; natural monopolies such as energy and railways should be reformed.

And perhaps most importantly, collectively produced wealth should be distributed more widely and fairly: five families are richer than the 12.6million poorest British citizens put together.

The benefits could be directed towards ensuring a four day week without a sharp drop in living standards is a realistic option for as many people as possible, rather than leading automatically to an increase in material living standards. It would be one of the reasons why we wish to reduce inequality, build houses, bring down the cost of rail tickets, or implement any policy aimed at bringing down living costs or raising wages.

These policies are essential because social progress, not just technological progress, is needed to make a four day week work. This is why Keynes’ prediction in the 1930s that within a century we would face the “problem of leisure”- high productivity meaning that we would be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of free time we had – was not realised.

Like the current five day week, the four day week would need to be flexible and staggered to ensure that we still have a functioning seven day economy. As now, it would simply be a norm that becomes the mutual expectation of businesses, employees, trade unions and government.

Those that wish to work more or less hours should be able to. The four day week is not about telling people how much they should or should not work and consume; it is aimed at giving more workers a much more free choice to decide for themselves.

Robert Owen, one of the founders of British socialism, campaigned for shorter working hours in 1817 under the slogan ‘Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’. This was dismissed as naïve and impractical, at a time when six working days of up to sixteen hours were common.

The eight hour day became one of a series of unmet demands that convinced Liberal-leaning trade unionists to form the nascent Labour Party at the start of the 20th century, seeking parliamentary representation to best serve workers’ interests. Eventually, what was once dismissed as unthinkable and idealistic became a deeply entrenched norm.

Given the extraordinary increases in wealth since the five day week became standard, it is time to democratically decide whether there are better alternatives to the current balance between paid work, unpaid work in all its forms, and leisure.


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