Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Digested Read

Debates About a Four-Day Working Week are Important - but Often Miss the Point

David A. Spencer



| 7 mins read

There is rising interest in (and support for) reducing the length of the working week. Once regarded as a radical demand of some labour activists, a growing number of businesses have recently piloted a four-day working week.

But there are potential dangers with the modern debate on this issue. For example, the ‘business case’ for shorter work hours ignores the need for greater worker bargaining power and democratic change in workplaces. Debates frequently overlook worker needs for higher incomes and higher quality work. Nonetheless, work time reduction should be an important aspect of a critical agenda for change in work.

Why work less?

Debates on working less are not new. Karl Marx sketched out a future (post-capitalist) utopia where the freedom to live well beyond work would be extended. Elsewhere, John Maynard Keynes predicted the working week would fall to fifteen hours by 2030, anticipating that the proceeds of higher economic growth would raise incomes and reduce work hours. While differing on some fundamental points, Marx and Keynes agreed that societal progress equated with extending ‘free time’.

Interestingly, both critical voices citing Marx and Keynes and more conservative business interest groups have found agreement in a four-day working week. ‘Post-work’ ideas are popular in critical circles, supposing that work is harmful to well-being. A four-day week is seen as a necessary first step in liberating people from work, freeing them to explore non-work activities.

More conventional ideas support cuts in weekly working hours. If workers worked four days instead of five, they would be more productive, less tired and stressed, and therefore less likely to seek alternative employment. A four-day working week may reduce overall costs by raising productivity, increasing worker morale, and reducing turnover costs. In other words, it may be ‘good’ for business.

But just because opinions converge on a four-day working week does not mean critical enquiry has achieved a ‘win’. Indeed, there are continuing tensions.

Working Time Conflict

Historically, when weekly work hours have fallen, workers’ bargaining power has been strong. Collective worker organisation via unions has seen workers secure reduced working hours. The stalling of weekly work hours in recent decades reflects how workers’ bargaining power has declined. It can therefore be argued that workers can only achieve a shorter working week if their bargaining power is enhanced.

But most businesses will likely resist work hour cuts. Take Microsoft Japan, which trialled a four-day working week in 2019. Effects on productivity and worker morale were positive. But the trial’s apparent success did not prompt a permanent move to a four-day working week— rather, the company reverted to the standard five. Other experiments in Iceland and the UK saw less than a reduction in a full day’s work compressed into four days, with three to recover.

In New Zealand, one company’s owner wrote a book promoting a business case for a four-day working week. But recent research suggests problems with its introduction. Unions were absent and workers were not fully involved in implementation. Workers felt more pressure to meet the (higher) productivity target, enduring greater monitoring to comply. Effectively, workers relinquished some freedom in work to achieve a four-day working week. Where managerial prerogative prevails, worker gains from a four-day working week will be limited.

Worker Demands: Wage Rises & Working Week Indifference

In the UK, around a third of workers want to reduce their hours—of these, a third would work fewer hours for less pay. But others wish to extend their working hours because of a basic need to earn more, known as underemployment. Underemployment is an increasing problem, reflected in involuntary part-time working and multiple job holding just to survive. For those struggling to get by, a four-day week may be seen as a direct threat.

Workers must secure any gains in productivity from shorter work hours. If not, the adoption of a four-day working week may then create further underemployment and widening inequality between workers. For those in low-paid occupations, where work is often paid hourly, a four-day working week would require hourly pay rises to prevent overall pay reductions. But employers will likely resist such increases, preferring to stick with lower hourly rates. Four-day working week proposals can thus divert attention from other more urgent concerns that hinder workers’ ability to live well.

For many contemporary workers, the key problem is insufficient wage income, only intensified by limiting work hours. Its resolution will require new laws to uprate minimum wages. Reformers should therefore target low pay alongside employment gaps and low-quality work, rather than debates about reducing work time.

Reworking the Future

Marx’s and Keynes’s visions of reducing working time encompassed people winning more time for themselves. At least for Marx, this vision paired with turning work into something people would embrace. Freedom to enjoy leisure was combined with extending the freedom to enjoy work. This has been lost in ‘post-work’ politics by focussing on ‘abolishing’ work. But it is not about choosing between less and better work, but seeking both simultaneously.

Voluntary action by businesses cannot be relied upon to achieve decisive change in either the duration or quality of working time. Instead, they must be pushed to change by unions and state action. A generalised reduction in work time will necessitate the state taking positions most businesses will likely oppose.

Reform must extend to creating workplaces where workers are active decisionmakers. This means developing works councils and giving workers a seat on company boards. It also means new forms of ownership, including where workers are joint owners. It is impossible to consider a world of less and better work without ceding more control over workplaces to workers. The aim, however, should not be a ‘post-work’ society, but a future where work is enhanced and allows for more leisure time. Ultimately, progress depends on creating a new system of work—one that enables people to enjoy life, whether at work or outside it.

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