Has the time of a four-day week finally arrived? It has been adopted by business, supported by governments around the world, and identified as a potential solution to the economic trauma caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It is an exciting political idea that deserves to be thought through, pursued and, if possible, put into practice – but that doesn’t mean that it is not without challenges.
In the United Kingdom, the diet is the most commonly presented like a four-day, 32-hour workweek with no pay cut. Details and practicalities remain open for deliberation, and as interest in the idea continues to flourish, so does the number of variations.
Different versions of the shortened work week are now available in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Spain and New Zealand. More recently still, the largest trials ever carried out in the world were conducted in Iceland, and last week they were declared “An overwhelming success”.
The expected benefits of a four-day week, many of which are supported by international research, are manifold. They range from improved health and well-being, increased motivation and engagement of workers, increased productivity, reduced unemployment and perhaps even lower carbon emissions.
The positive arguments for a shortened work week are compelling, but some arguments for the proposal need more evidence to back them up. For example, it is plausible but far from certain that increasing leisure time will lead people to make healthier and more sustainable lifestyle choices, as proponents claim.
Likewise, it seems optimistic to expect an increase in free time to entice men to take on a greater share of women’s domestic work without a significant cultural shift to alter deep-rooted gender norms. Previous search suggested that many men simply won’t want to shoulder the burden of unpaid work.
Then there are the practical challenges of implementing a shorter work week. The 35-hour week in France, introduced at the turn of the millennium, has shown that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work. Some sectors and workplaces, such as hospitals, have not been able to adapt quickly enough, leading to staff shortages and intensification of work.
In addition, socially and economically disadvantaged groups were most likely to be worse off as a result of the changes – some ending up with lower wages. The French experience is a warning of what can go wrong when a shortened workweek hits the rails.
With these benefits and challenges in mind, new search published earlier this week by the Social Market Foundation sought to find out exactly who wants and would benefit from a four-day week, and what that means for the case of reform. We used official data to show that a large majority of workers – 80 percent – would not want to work fewer hours if it meant lower pay.
Our work deliberately poses a question that has generally been under-explored in this debate, as previous polls and analysis tend to ask people for their support for a shorter week without a loss of pay.
Campaigners for a four-day week seem to be aware of these public attitudes, which is why they tend to insist that the plan should not involve any pay cuts. But that just raises the question of who, if not the workers, will bear the cost.
The Autonomy think tank suggested that in a the best case scenario, the improvements in productivity would be large enough to ensure that no one is worse off. For some companies and industries, this may well be the case. On average, economy-wide productivity would have to increase by about 15 percent for a four-day week to pay off, and some tests have reported productivity increases of 20 to 40 percent.
However, such large increases may not be achievable everywhere and over an extended period of time, and for jobs and industries with particularly long hours, the necessary gains begin to seem implausible.
If productivity does not increase enough, Autonomy expects companies to foot the bill, and their modeling suggests that most companies would not go bankrupt, although some might face cash flow problems. However, it is worth considering the possibility that higher costs may be passed on to consumers through higher prices (a pay cut under another name). Government grants may have a role to play in avoiding the risk of such an outcome.
Of course, it’s not really revolutionary to say that workers don’t want less money. But it is interesting to note that a sizeable minority – 11 percent of workers – would have be prepared to accept a pay cut for shorter hours. This indicates a strong appetite for change on the part of parts of the labor market and indicates where the deployment of the four-day week should be concentrated.
This offers grounds for optimism for supporters of the four-day week but, like the French example, it also provides a warning that the benefits of a four-day week might not be as gradual as we might l ‘hope. People in white-collar occupations and in older, higher-paying jobs are most likely to want shorter hours, while people with low incomes are more likely to want (or need) to work longer hours. ‘hours. Women already work an average of 32 hours per week, and at least some men will resist a reduction in working time.
All of this shows that a shorter week is not in itself a panacea for social inequalities. As such, additional policies may be needed to help complete reform and ensure that the gains are widely and fairly shared. This requires careful thought in the design of the policy package.
The four-day week could radically transform the way we work and live, changing society for the better. The UK should consider the idea, as should other countries. But the realities of putting it into practice raise a number of questions – including who (if any) will have to pay for it. There is a lot of thought and work to be done if we are to reach its full potential.
Jake Shepherd is a researcher at the Social Market Foundation