Time for the four-day week ?

by John Quiggin on February 18, 2022

For more than a century after the achievement of the eight hour day (around 1850) in Australia and New Zealand standard hours of week were reduced steadily, with the shift to a five day week, annual leave and more. But progress came to a halt with the resurgence of neoliberalism in the 1980s. I’ve been writing about the need for shorter weekly hours, more holidays and so on ever since, mostly with no apparent impact.

But the pandemic may have changed things, if only by making us all feel more exhausted than ever. After I published this piece in The Conversation advocating a four-day week, I was deluged with interview requests. It’s not perfect, and some of the most striking turns of phrase are the editor’s, not mine. But it seems like a good way to start the discussion.

{ 15 comments }

1

Starry Gordon 02.18.22 at 4:44 pm

“Or we do we want to keep on working so we can consume more and live in bigger houses with room to store the stuff we buy to make ourselves feel better about working so much[?] ”

Well, there’s that, but also the 8-hour day, 5-day week probably maximizes production-consumption and thus the benefits to Capital of more money, more stuff, more weapons, etc. Capital will therefore find reasons to encourage this format for those it has domesticated.

Some people find meaning for their lives in employment. It’s a way of relating to the social body. No need to go into that.

There is also the fact that a lot of people don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re not be driven by a boss. They may turn to Great Leaders. The Devil finds work for idle hands.

2

Omega Centuri 02.18.22 at 8:41 pm

The loss of productivity will be highly variable depending upon the economic task. If that task is the continuous supervision of a largely automated process, as I suspect is the case for most industrial factory work, then productivity will directly scale with hours worked, Either a significant reduction in production, or an increase in employment would result. In places where health and other benefits are paid for by employers, the overall cost of these per unit of production will increase because these indirect overhead costs scale with the number of employees. For some brainwork jobs, it is possible there would be no loss in output. So an adjustment of the relative cost of production would have to take place.

3

Thomas Fuller 02.18.22 at 10:15 pm

For more than twenty years I have advocated moving to an 8-day week so that our corporate overlords could whip up Blue and Gold teams to compete on who does best in their 4-day workweek.

4

MisterMr 02.19.22 at 12:07 am

In theory a shorter workweek could be balanced by having less unemployed people, but this would probably squeeze the profit share more; we could also have the same workweek and earlier retirement, but on this the trend seems to go in the opposite direction.

So while I think a shorter workweek is a very good idea, I think we can get there only with very strong political pressure.

Personally I think a shorter workweek would be a great step towards less inequality though.

5

LAL 02.19.22 at 1:57 am

There’s a difference between the 4 day week and early retirement. It’s not only white collar workers and bosses who find meaning for their lives in employment.
See : https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/workingpapers/wp93.html—–early retirement—–> early mortality.

6

dilbert dogbert 02.19.22 at 4:38 am

I have been living a 7 day week since retiring 26 years ago. My wife is a sever taskmaster.
A 12 hour day is common.

7

Matt 02.19.22 at 12:06 pm

Some thoughts:
At one point during the pandemic, New Zealand proposed (but didn’t actually go ahead with, I think) a 4 day work week, but where this was just a a 1/5th pay cut for employees (because they were working 1/5th less) so as, supposedly, to provide jobs for people who were out of work because of the pandemic. Of course this was silly – it would be super hard in the short run to work out how to slot people into these positions, among other things. But, what was interesting to me was that, among the largely American commentators on the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog, people were super if favor of it, until they learned it would involve a pay cut, in which case they were super opposed to it. They all wanted to be paid the same amount for working 4, rather than 5, days a week, but didn’t want to be paid their “hourly” rate for for working 4 days a week. Even if you split the difference between employers and workers (as is suggested here) I think it’s going to be a pretty hard sale, even if you leave out the question as to why employers will go along.

This doesn’t mean that the idea of reducing hours is bad. I think it’s good! But, I think it will have to be done carefully, and that “everyone just is less materialistic” won’t be a very good argument for it.

Similarly, “extending the weekend” seems like a bad idea if it means “everyone takes the same days off”. This is not, in general, a good thing. Having highly formalized working hours is bad. It leads to extra traffic, crowded shops, genderized labor distributions, crowds at recreations sites, and so on. (All of these things are ways that Australia is worse than the US, it seems to me, speaking from experience in both places.) Allowing more flexibility here is desirable, but regulating when people work will hurt that. Regulated “penalty hours”, days off, etc. is an enemy, not a friend, of better working conditions.

So – these should be goals we work towards. But, it’s important to keep in mind the interests of people who have interests different than your own!

8

Tim Worstall 02.20.22 at 8:02 am

JQ. You make something of a leap there.

“But over the past 20 to 30 years the share of national income going to the owners of capital as profits (instead to labour as wages and salaries) has increased considerably. ”

The paper you use as back up of this says:

“The long-run increase in the capital share largely reflects higher returns accruing to owners of housing (primarily rents imputed to home owners, particularly before the 1990s) and financial institutions (since financial deregulation in the 1980s).”

When you also include mining company profits – clearly part of the mining boom – that of private non-financial companies excluding mining seems static at best, if not fallen since the 1970s. Also, about the same in 2018 as it was in 1990 or so.

GST would also have had an effect – subsidies to production and taxes on consumption being the fourth component of national income, to add to mixed, capital and labour income.

When you pull out the UK figures (yes, I know, different country, different economy etc) on that four component basis there has been no rise in the capital share after the recovery from the mid-70s unsustainable fall (when profits didn’t even cover depreciation). There is a fall in the labour share but it’s entirely covered by the rise in mixed income (which, fine, doesn’t apply in Oz) and that in subsidies to production and tax on consumption.

Is there any stronger evidence that the capital share across the economy generally has risen?

9

Theophylact 02.21.22 at 2:19 am

When I worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency not too many years ago, we had a variety of flex-time options available. The standard 80-hour two-week pay period could be arranged in various ways. For example, I chose to work five nine-hour days in the first week, and three nine-hour days plus one eight-hour day the next, with one day off. I chose a Friday for my free day, but I could have just as easily picked a Monday. Other people in the same office opted to work four ten-hour days each week so as to have two long weekends. Starting hours could be as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 10; closing as early as 4 p.m. and as late as 8.

Frankly, I don’t think you get as much useful work done with a longer day; fatigue and boredom are major factors. But people certainly liked having more time off.

10

Fergus 02.22.22 at 3:50 am

I’m interested to see Matt @ 7 suggesting that fixed days off are inflexible and bad for working people – my instict is the opposite. For the last year I’ve been working 4 days, so I’ve had Friday off as well as the standard weekend, and while there are good things about having a day off ‘to yourself’ without everybody else off, there are also a lot of ways to spend time off that necessarily involve other people. (Most obviously your friends, but also there aren’t as many eg. concerts you can go to on random weeknights, and if they were they wouldn’t be as good without a crowd.) A lot of recreation is inherently social and it takes a bit of social coordination to get the value of it.

I guess the answer is somewhere in the middle – maybe everyone has Saturday/Sunday, but the other day off varies more widely – which of course is already how things work (even in Australia!), since obviously we don’t go through the weekend with everything closed because nobody’s working.

Separate point: I think some of the comments about people not wanting to give up wages for a four-day week aren’t putting enough weight on the point that you can give up wage increases – as John says in the article:

If this cost were shared equally between employer and employee, workers would have to forgo wage increases of 2.5%. This would correspond to somewhere between two and five years of real wage growth based on recent history in Australia.

Obviously people won’t like the idea of not getting a raise for 2-5 years either, but it’s not as stark. (Also, if I’m not mistaken, since that is overall/average wage growth, I think we’re talking about foregoing 2-5 years of wage increases in the same job, so a lot of people would still be getting a raise via progression.)

Speaking personally, I worked full-time when I was in the UK, and now that I’m back in Australia where wages are significantly higher, I’ve effectively taken some of that wage increase in the form of working a day less. Something like that across the board would be the way to a four day week. Of interest – the teacher’s union in Victoria has just negotiated a reduction in weekly teaching hours, with the government to take on the cost of hiring more teachers to fill that gap. (It’s not quite the same, since their overall working hours including non-teaching duties aren’t changing, but clearly related.)

11

Michael Sullivan 02.22.22 at 4:31 am

LAL@5: “See : https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/workingpapers/wp93.html—–early retirement—–> early mortality.”

The methodology here doesn’t really support your conclusion. “Retiring” here means drawing social security, which doesn’t have to be done at your retirement date. And there is a lot of incentive to take social security late if you can afford to and expect to live long, but to take it early if you have health problems and likelihood of early mortality.

As a financial planner, I work with a fair number of people who retire relatively comfortably and on the early side (55-61), and most of them delay taking social security unless they have health concerns and expect limited longevity. They would show up as “not early retirees” in that survey. While others else who retire later (62-63) due to health problems and with very limited other financial resources has little choice by to draw social security immediately.

The paper you link even discusses this issue as a potential confounder.

Without a lot more information about the work decisions and initial health of the retirees, I don’t think you can draw clear conclusions about the relative health or longevity of early vs. normal/late retirees. The sniff test and my anecdotal evidence suggests much the opposite for people who retire early despite being in good enough health to continue working without problems if desired.

12

Trader Joe 02.22.22 at 2:56 pm

This is an incredibly white collar centric view of the world imagining that a 4 day work week means “more long weekends”

There are a tremendous number of professions that are organized around a 24-7 delivery system in which workers do 4×10 hour or 4×9 hour shifts and others that do 3×12 shifts. Hospitals, fire fighters, airlines, police, a lot of warehousing to name a few. Quite a lot of retail is arranged this way as well.

The point being, most people want certain services all the time – and some are especially wanted when “rich white collar people’ have days off.

I’d add that for a meaningful portion of white collar professions there is little concept of “workday” anymore anyway. People work whatever hours they need to accomplish their job – if that’s 70 hours spread out over 7 days than that’s what it is, if the week can be confined to weekdays great, if you can get 40 hours of work done in 3 days go for it – but don’t expect the world to stop for you.

13

John Quiggin 02.22.22 at 10:55 pm

@12 You didn’t read the article very carefully did you? As I mentioned, construction workers are at the leading edge here – the very opposite of “white collar”. And the reference to “long weekends” was a link to another article, not part of mine. More generally, your entire comment reeks of American overwork culture, exactly what we are pushing back against.

14

John Quiggin 02.22.22 at 10:58 pm

Tim @8 I’m pretty sure we’ve been over this before. I’m not going to derail the thread by arguing about it again – I’m sure there will be another opportunity.

15

Trader Joe 02.23.22 at 12:44 pm

I agree that construction workers are a fine example of non-white collar work, but also not part of an industry that typically works 24-7 nor one which is focused on delivery of services to the leisure industry. One might argue what good would it do to have 4 day work weeks if restaurants, retail and theaters closed on the weekends so as to accommodate their staff with the same sort of work environment. Similarly, as I note, hospitals, fire departments etc. don’t enjoy the luxury of providing services when it interests the staff or management – they are 24 x 7 and will work to satisfy constant and usually unpredictable demand.

I’ll own the notion that the end portion of my response ‘reeks of American overwork culture” as truly its the only thing I know within my own career. That said, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy well above average compensation as a result of my “overwork” and comfortably believe that some portion of the resulting wealth derives from the effort of my own labor – that’s my choice, I don’t evangelize it.

While your piece sensibly suggests a migration between reduced wages and reduced hours in reality most people don’t make that trade easily, especially in a time when inflation seems to be significantly resurging. What many really want is to retain the same wage and simply work less for it.

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