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10 April 2017

The four-day week is more realistic than it sounds

Just don't expect it to be all brunch and no washing up. 

By Julia Rampen

This week, come Thursday, office workers will shut down their computers, turn out the lights and go to the pub. Over their beers, they’ll hatch elaborate plans for the long weekend – a getaway in the countryside; visiting family; drum and bass until the birds start warbling again.

It’s the run up to Easter, and a bank holiday. But this could be every week, if the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas gets her way.

“There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that when people are exhausted their productivity goes down,” Lucas said after the idea of investigating three-day weekends was floated.

“What we want to do is take a step back and think, what is the purpose of the economy? What kind of country do we want to be? And do we really want a future where all of us are trying to work even harder, taking our work home with us and working evenings and weekends.”

The reaction of many of us exhausted full-time workers may be: “But how?” (I have been trying to write this piece about the four-day week for more than a week now). Part-time workers, on the other hand, may be living the Green dream – but at the price of less pay and being passed over for promotions. The Greens themselves are clear that this policy is only at the “ideas stage”.

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So what are the benefits? The Greens pointed me to a host of studies showing that employees working long hours are at higher risk of a stroke, that it could be good for gender equality, and for the climate, and that working less can mean you’re actually more productive.

The New Economics Foundation has described 21 hours as the optimum working week. It also challenges the idea that our working week is “normal”:

Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.

This is all very poetic, but we live in a capitalist society, and as the Labour leadership has discovered, this ain’t changing soon. So without a weekenders’ revolution, is there an economic case to be made that can win over policymakers and business alike?

The idea of a short working week was, in fact, pioneered by Britain’s signature economist – John Maynard Keynes. In 1930, in between arguing for economic stimulus and against the gold standard, Keynes predicted that by the beginning of the 21st century, his descendants would no longer need to work long hours to satisfy material needs. Instead, we would be working a mere 15 hours a week and spend the rest of the time trying to grapple with “the art of life itself”.

Keynes was wrong, of course. But the modern economic argument goes something like this. The kind of economic growth developed countries used to enjoy is neither likely to return, nor environmentally desirable, since it is based on consumption of resources. Therefore, the traditional tax and spend model favoured by progressives is kaput. Instead, we should make the most of our human resources instead.

At the heart of this argument is the recognition that humans (mostly female humans) already spend plenty of time in unpaid employment. As the NEF notes, 21 hours is the average time men and women of working age spend in “paid employment” each week: “It is just a few minutes more than the average time per week they spend in unpaid work at home.” The introduction of a shorter working week should in theory redistribute the time spent by a household in unpaid labour. Less spreadsheets; more washing up.

Intriguingly, the developed world seems to be doing this of its own accord. The number of hours worked per year by British workers dropped from 1,700 in 2000 to 1,674 in 2015, according to the OECD. In the United States, it dropped from 1,836 hours to 1,790, and in Canada from 1,779 to 1,706. Talk of robots taking over many middle-level jobs is becoming more and more mainstream. When it comes to work, the Greens may sound like office workers after a few pints. But perhaps they’re the most hard-headed of all.