Monday to Thursday

Growing numbers of American cities, companies and schools are adopting four-day weeks in response to

For years, the rest of the world has complained about American energy consumption. Now, thanks to the surge in world oil prices, the United States has woken up to the need to avoid journeys - starting with the daily commute.

Edward Heath, whose Conservative government was defeated in February 1974 after he put British industry on a three-day working week during the first great miners' strike, would be encouraged. States, cities, schools, and private companies have started to trim the working week to reduce their workers' commuting costs.

New Mexico, Virginia and Utah have instigated a four-day week, along with hundreds of cities, including Birmingham, Alabama - which offers staff the option of taking either Monday or Friday off - and smaller places such as Avondale, Arizona, where the city hall is closed every Friday.

One in six US cities with more than 25,000 residents now operates a reduced working week, according to Rex Facer, professor of public finance at Brigham Young University, Utah. He found the rewards are not just in saving energy: a shorter working week boosts morale and productivity and at the same time cuts overtime, absenteeism, staff turnover and utility bills.

The financial savings are considerable. Utah hopes its four-day week will save $3m (£1.6m) a year in heating, air-conditioning and lighting costs for its more than 1,000 state buildings. Florida International University, which moved to working four ten-hour days this summer, hopes to save $250,000 on electricity.

Jeff Herring, Utah's head of human resources, believes his state's four-day experiment will become permanent, even if energy prices fall. "It isn't just a crisis-management initiative," he said. "I think this is a long-term strategy."

School governors are joining the four-day revolution, primarily to cut soaring school bus fuel bills. Schools in Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah are among those that have abandoned Friday classes. A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that one in seven school boards is considering a four-day week.

Companies are also exploring shorter working weeks. In the motor industry, the troubled economy has cut demand for new cars, while formerly affluent car workers find higher commuting expenses eating up their smaller pay packets. Chrysler, whose sales have slumped 29 per cent over the past year, is hoping to persuade the United Auto Workers union to put 10,000 workers on to four ten-hour days, starting this autumn. The company expects productivity to stay the same.

On Capitol Hill, too, the four-day trend is catching on. On 22 August, the leading Democrat in the House of Representatives, Steny H Hoyer, proposed putting all 1.9 million federal government civilian workers on to a four-day week. He has asked for this to be implemented by the end of the year.

There are, however, limits to how much can be saved by cutting car journeys. Even large cities have no, or inadequate, public transport, and so nine out of ten Americans drive to work. And three-quarters of them are the only person sitting in the car.

The four-day week is a good start towards weaning Americans off their addiction to oil, but it is nowhere near enough to make the country independent of foreign producers. As Marty Strange, policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, an education charity in Arlington, Virginia, put it: "It's really a small bandage on a deep cut."

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food