In her first #ConterManifesto column on big policy ideas for the left, Eve Livingston looks at the merits of a four day working week and how it might benefit workers in the long run…
We’re so used to a society structured around work and in which our value is based on our ability to carry it out, it’s easy to forget it doesn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t until the move from agriculture to industry that a clear distinction was drawn between paid work in the ‘public’ sphere, where payment was based on time, and the unpaid domestic work left over at home, carried out largely by women and pushed to the edges of the economy despite being central to its functioning.
In the time that has passed since, society has come to be shaped around this model of industrial capitalism, even to the present day in which its rationale is no longer applicable. Despite the vital work of trade unions, not least in originally securing eight-hour days, we find ourselves often overworked and under-satisfied, taking as standard a five day working week made up of eight hour days and unable to comprehend a situation in which our time isn’t commodified and contested, used as a means of control in the workplace and a driver of consumption outside of it.
But this isn’t the only way to do things. By embracing a shorter working week, we could see healthier, happier and more productive citizens, and a fairer, more environmentally friendly and socially just society – all by working less.
There are many reasons to get behind a shorter working week, the most important of which for the left should be those concerned with fairness, equality and health. But it’s also an idea which is inherently sellable to businesses and employers when packaged correctly because, in short, the way we currently work doesn’t really work at all.
For a start, there’s no causal link between hours worked and productivity: in fact, countries across Europe with the shortest working hours appear to generate the highest GDP. Factoring in high staff turnover, roughly 140 million hours lost annually to sickness absence in the UK (much of it due to work-related stress or exhaustion), and persistent unemployment figures, it’s clear our long work hours aren’t neatly translating into productivity and success.
Even among those in employment, around 3.3 million report wanting longer hours or more work. This uneven distribution of work coupled with a desire for flexibility could be met with progressive solutions like a three day week, but a labour market stacked in favour of employers and profit has instead seen the rise of zero hours contracts and the exploitative gig economy.
If a shorter week is palatable to capitalism though, it’s also fundamentally radical in challenging its very basis. Our current system where worth is inherently linked to work means an economy structured around increased GDP, often at the expense of health and happiness – but break the chain characterised by the New Economics Foundation as “living to work, working to earn and earning to consume” and the possibility for an economy which centres society and environment opens up.
And in such a system, it’s difficult to see how we’d continue with our current reality where those who work hardest and longest and for the widest societal benefit – cleaners, nurses and teachers, for example – are paid magnitudes less than the likes of bankers and private sector executives.
Our work-driven society also bears a lot of responsibility for the fact the entire western world consumes well beyond its natural resources, with commuting and cooking the most carbon-intensive activities we partake in. Countries with shorter working hours on average enjoy a far smaller carbon footprint as more flexibility increases the capacity of citizens to choose lower-carbon methods of transport and fresher, more sustainable ingredients rather than driving to work and grabbing a pre-packaged sandwich or energy-intensive ready meal on the way home.
Indeed, our relationship with consumption in general could be challenged by a shortened work week. A society rich in cash and credit but low on time is one in which even our leisure is structured by our work and our consumption often driven by status and convenience: capitalism encourages us to consume beyond our means but ensures we’re no less satisfied in order that we keep spending.
A more balanced culture could encourage a different relationship with consumption, with implications for the gig economy and outsourcing of menial tasks which currently provide hotbeds for exploitation.
Increased free time can only be a good thing, too, for active citizenship and participation in politics at all levels. Not only do democracies and local communities benefit from the active engagement of citizens, but the public sector is also strengthened by the ability of these citizens to co-produce services, encouraging creative and responsive thinking and ensuring that communities are invested in protecting a strong and sustainable public sector.
One of the greatest injustices created by modern working life is the vast amount of unpaid and undervalued work done in the domestic sphere, primarily by women. A shorter working week could create opportunities for heterosexual couples to more fairly balance childcare and domestic chores and encourage a societal re-evaluation of the crucial value of such work.
In the long-term this presents a chance to transform our economy from a largely broken one reliant on the type of formal, paid work which is saturated, towards one which rewards other types of work where there is still opportunity for growth. It follows that the costs of full-time childcare – which is currently so high as to be prohibitive and which prices many women out of the labour market – would fall and parents would enjoy more time to spend with children and wider family.
It might be difficult to imagine such a radical shift in a system so well-embedded, but reduced working hours are not a new concept. Following the 2008 financial crash, a number of employers including the Republican governor of Utah shortened the working weeks of their organisations in order to cut costs: in the Utah case, two thirds of employees said it had made them more productive and 80% said they would have liked to continue with the reduced hours.
The 1974 miners’ strike saw similar measures introduced in the UK, with employers instructed to operate a three day working week to conserve the limited energy supply. Industrial production dropped by only 6%, a figure balanced out by decreased sickness absence and staff changes.
In Scotland, Glasgow’s Pursuit Marketing are one company experimenting with a shorter working week in the present day. In an interview with the BBC, Operations Director Lorraine Grey reported a 30% increase in productivity and turnover which has more than doubled since the change. Crucially, she notes that clients and stakeholders have recognised the success of this approach, making their own enquiries and preparations for trialling a shorter working week. Despite its radical roots and benefits, it’s an idea which might just be catching on in the mainstream.
And across the world, workers are already organising around a shorter working week. In the UK, both striking Royal Mail workers and tube drivers represented by Aslef recently cited reduced working hours as a central demand, while RMT have long held a four day, 32 hour week as a central policy. Europe’s biggest trade union, Germany’s IG Metall, recently won the right to a 28 hour working week and 4.3% pay increase following strike action.
As with any idea in the abstract, a shorter week is not a silver bullet and also has its dangers and challenges. Most notably, low-paid workers are understandably likely to be wary of any measure which looks like it might reduce their wages, and there’s a risk of those already in employment taking on overtime, reducing new openings.
Employers’ concerns about rising costs and skills shortages could also have implications for workers, with accelerated automation and restrictive labour laws endangering their jobs. It’s therefore essential that a 28 (or even 21) hour week is considered alongside a suite of other left-wing demands, most notably strengthened trade unions and an increased minimum wage. Progressive taxation could also safeguard public services and fund a restructured benefits system, encouraging further redistribution of wealth.
It seems remarkable there can be one idea which unites the disparate spheres of business, public health, trade unions and equality campaigners, let alone that it can also involve working less. In the abstract, a three or four day working week may seem too good to be true. But as one in a range of socialist demands it presents a very real chance to radically challenge how we view work – and consequently leisure – with potentially transformative effects for our economy, society and culture.