Dzmitry Dzemidovich Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Clocking Out: Chasing the Dream of a Four-Day Workweek in the 21st Century

By Leonard Hockerts

Writer Leonard Hockerts looks into the social and political issues associated with adopting a 4 day work week – and whether it is somewhat inevitable.

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that, by around 2030, a 15-hour workweek would be the norm. It is now 2023, and in the UK the average worker still has a 36-hour workweek. It looks like Keynes was wrong. 

But his claim was not unfounded: over the last century, the world has seen significant changes in our working culture through various technological advances. And indeed, the labour market was rapidly changing throughout Keynes’ lifetime. When he was born in 1883, people in the US worked 10 hours per day, six days a week. By 1920, that was reduced to an eight-hour day, and by 1940 the five day work week was introduced.  A continuation of the trend must have seemed inevitable at the time of Keynes’ statement. 

While it is true that average working hours have decreased slightly since, this has little to do with the general form of a full-time job, which is still 40 hours a week. It has more to do with increased holidays, and also, importantly, women entering the labour force, often by getting a part time job, which statistically pulls down the average hours undertaken per worker.

As a result, it is no surprise that the concept of a four day work week has gained popularity over recent years, with a reported 83% of US workers and 80% of UK workers  welcoming such a change. In fact, polling suggests that almost every other person would go as far as changing their job to have a four day work week. This seems to be based mainly on the desire for overall improvements to worker freedom and wellbeing, and who can blame them.   

So, given that the public wants them, and that the decrease in working hours over the last century was much milder than economic advances hoped for, why have four day work weeks not been introduced? Are they not economically feasible, or are there other overlooked risks? 

Let’s start with some economic theory – the overall economic productivity of a worker is calculated by the product of their time worked, and the quality of their work. For some jobs, a four day work week would boost the quality of hourly work due to higher work satisfaction, meaning that overall productivity could even increase. That is quite likely for highly demanding jobs, as the quality of work highly depends on how motivated workers are.  

On the other hand, so-called lower-skilled jobs, such as bartending, are unlikely to see an increase in productivity. In fact, productivity per worker will most likely decrease due to reduced working hours. That said, a four day work week could still have merit even in these situations, because this issue comes down to our economic priorities. 

For instance, it could be argued that a society where people are more satisfied, despite overall  productivity being slightly lower, is more desirable than one which maximises GDP but has lower job satisfaction. One Gallup poll suggests that ‘quality of work experience’ is up to three times as determinative of life satisfaction as the number of hours or days worked. Very capitalist countries do not seem to do worse on job satisfaction compared to more worker-oriented countries. The US, a very capitalist-oriented country, ranks third best for job satisfaction in the developed world, just behind Turkey and Norway. Germany, Denmark, Spain and indeed the UK all have lower rates of job satisfaction.  As well as this, the US ranks highly on the World Happiness Index, being 15th best in the world. And of course, Americans also enjoy a significantly higher average income than most of the aforementioned countries.

There are tangential issues that may arise from the introduction of a four day work week: consider the scenario where schools are shortened to four days a week, meaning that some parents who are still working five days may struggle to find childcare for that additional day. During a transitional period in the structure of the wider economy, it is likely that a variety of issues will come up. 

Although four day work weeks are not a magical solution to insufficiencies in worker wellbeing, this does not mean that they aren’t worth trialling. In fact, the vast majority of trials have shown very favourable results – 90% of businesses continued with four day work weeks after piloting them. Workers didn’t call in sick as often, worker wellbeing improved, and to top it off, overall productivity did not even decrease.

That being said, it is also important to remember that the types of businesses most likely to undertake such trials are also the ones more likely to benefit from the new working model. In other words, one should be careful when extrapolating these results to other economic sectors.

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has announced that four day work weeks will be trialled in the civil service, and it isn’t unreasonable to believe that more private businesses will adopt them soon. An increase in working hours would be vastly unpopular with the public, so a reduction is far more likely. I suppose the real question is whether Keynes’ vision of “[t]hree-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week” will ever come true in our lifetimes.


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