The Four-Day Week

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2022

I just got invited to put a short entry on the 4-day week in the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of HRM . It’s over the fold


Four Day Week

The five-day working week and the two-day weekend, have been standard for so long, it is hard for many to imagine anything different. But, as a normal way of working, it dates back only to the middle of the 20th century. Before that, Saturday was a normal working day in Western countries and only Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was normally taken as a day of rest.

The advent of the weekend, and the associated standard workweek of 35 to 40 hours was the culmination of a long series of reductions in working hours from the peak, of 70 hours or more reached in the early 19th century. At the time, it was expected that these reductions would continue, as technological progress reduced the labour input needed to produce any given volume of output.

Reductions in annual hours, through increases in vacation time and other forms of leave continued during the middle decades of the 20th century,. However, with the increase in the bargaining power of employers which began with the neoliberal ‘counter-revolution’ in the 1970s, progress towards reduced working hours halted and was, in many cases, reversed.

The shock of the pandemic has created conditions for a resurgence of interest in reduced working hours and, particularly, the idea of a four-day week. The pandemic exacerbated existing disillusionment with working arrangements, and showed that alternatives are possible. As a result, a phase of experimentation has begun.

Proposals for a four-day week differ regarding the associated change in working hours. At one extreme, some proposals leave weekly hours unchanged, compressing five days’ work into four. At the other, daily working hours are unchanged, and the number of hours in the standard working week is reduced by 20 per cent.

It’s also necessary to consider whether a four-day week should take the form of a three-day weekend, extended to include Mondays (or perhaps Fridays). One alternative is an extension the rostered day off prevailing in some parts of the building industry, where all workers have one day off each fortnight, but the number rostered on any given day is constant. Another option, drawing on the experience of the pandemic would be a core 3-day week (Tuesday to Thursday) with workers having either Friday or Monday off.

One way or another it seems that the four-day week is now firmly on the policy agenda.

John Quiggin

References and selected further readings

Quiggin, J. (2022), ‘There’s never been a better time for Australia to embrace the 4-day week’, The Conversation, 14 February https://theconversation.com/theres-never-been-a-better-time-for-australia-to-embrace-the-4-day-week-176374,

Schor, J. (1993) The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books,

{ 8 comments }

1

MisterMr 05.04.22 at 6:30 pm

Quiggin says “[…]middle of the 20th century. Before that, Saturday was a normal working day in Western countries and only Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was normally taken as a day of rest.”.

But in my knowledge Sunday was the usual day of rest, precisely because the popes didn’t want to have the same day of rest of the jews.
Wikipedia agrees with me:
“In 363, Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea prohibited observance of the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), and encouraged Christians to work on the Saturday and rest on the Lord’s Day (Sunday).[15] The fact that the canon had to be issued at all is an indication that adoption of Constantine’s decree of 321 was still not universal, not even among Christians. It also indicates that Jews were observing the Sabbath on the Saturday. ”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday#Sunday_in_Christianity

2

J-D 05.05.22 at 4:41 am

But in my knowledge Sunday was the usual day of rest …

A deeper dive into Wikipedia reveals more complexities:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath_in_Christianity
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatarianism

3

J-D 05.05.22 at 4:47 am

Meanwhile Google Translate assures me that the Italian translation of Sabbath and the Italian translation of Saturday are the same word, and that something similar is the case in Spanish and Portuguese–so in those languages if you tried to say that the Sabbath was on Sunday you might end up saying that Saturday was on Sunday …

4

MisterMr 05.06.22 at 8:16 am

“Meanwhile Google Translate assures me that the Italian translation of Sabbath and the Italian translation of Saturday are the same word”

Indeed, I completely misread John Quiggin’s sentence as if saturday was the day of rest.
Apologies.

5

Tom Hurka 05.06.22 at 4:40 pm

Wasn’t one of Juliet Schor’s arguments that as employers came to give workers more and more benefits, e.g. health care, it became in their interest to give an existing worker more hours, even at time and a half, rather than hire a new worker who would need new benefits? Once you’ve paid someone’s health care you’ve paid it. In general if reducing the work week means increasing the number of workers, and if for each worker there’s a fixed cost in benefits, then reducing the work week is expensive for employers, i.e. it means more dollars in benefits per employee hour worked.

6

John Quiggin 05.07.22 at 5:47 am

@5 This depends on employment arrangements. For example, employer-provided health benefits are rare outside the US. But pressure for full-time employees to work longer hours seems to be the norm whenever bosses have the whip hand.

Drawing on the experience of the pandemic, a lot of it seems to be the fact that bosses like walking around and seeing their subordinates noses’ to the grindstone, and being able to order them around at any time. Since bosses have working time that make long hours much less burdensome, even positively pleasant, that translates into pressure for long hours, even when higher pay goes with it.

7

Jake Gibson 05.07.22 at 10:45 am

As a exempt worker, 40 hours would have seemed like a dream job. 4 day week would be great with the same income level. Getting management in line with that would be a steep climb.
In 2012 when I retired most production did work a 4 day week. 4 12 hour days with three off. The plant did that to run 24 hours 7 days a week. Some workers actually liked it. Some hated it.
I hated it because I worked 5 days and every other weekend. Remotely on the weekends.

8

J-D 05.08.22 at 2:13 am

Drawing on the experience of the pandemic, a lot of it seems to be the fact that bosses like walking around and seeing their subordinates noses’ to the grindstone, and being able to order them around at any time.

Multiply that impulse a thousandfold and you get this:

‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? …’

‘…That is the world that we are preparing, Winston. A world of victory after victory, triumph after triumph after triumph: an endless pressing, pressing, pressing upon the nerve of power. …’

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell(O’Brien and Winston Smith talking in the cellars of the Ministry of Love)

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