Let's have an eight-day week

Unlike the day, month and year, which relate to astronomical cycles, the week is an arbitary unit
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The Independent Culture
IN THE wake of school violence in the US, President Clinton has discovered what most of us instinctively feel: that our family time is too short. And the problems of increasing hours at work are not unknown in the UK either. According to a recent report in The Economist, two-parent families now work an average of almost 500 hours more per year than they did a generation ago. In an era of affluence, "time poverty" is shaping up as a vital political issue.

What can be done to give working parents more time with their children? Here is an idea that could be implemented without major cost or loss of productivity: adopt an eight-day week.

The seven-day week goes back to the fourth century. It was established by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who also made the Christian Sunday a legal holiday. But neither holy books nor celestial forces dictate a week of specific duration. Unlike the day, month and year, which correspond to the astronomical cycles, the week is an arbitrary unit of time. While the biblical account of the Creation makes reference to God's resting on the seventh day, insertion of an additional 24 hours would not interfere with weekly religious observance of a day of rest.

If the seven-day rotation has become sacrosanct, why change it? What would an eight-day week do for us? The short answer is that it would dramatically improve the quality of our lives. The eighth day would offer time for rest, time for recuperation and, most significantly these days, time for family life.

Recent studies have shown that industrial societies are working themselves to death - with too much stress, declining leisure and not enough hours for children (who are often left unsupervised to view violent films on TV). Think of how the all-too-infrequent three-day weekends are eagerly anticipated and enjoyed as times for family travel, community celebrations or plain relaxation. Now consider the possibility of having a three-day weekend every week.

Sounds fine, you say, but what about productivity? How would we be able to afford it?

By itself, a reconfiguration of the week from seven to eight days, retaining the typical five working days, would cause a lesser drop in productivity than would shifting from a five- to a four-workday schedule in a seven- day week. For societies that adhere to a five-day working week, the insertion of an eighth day would reduce the number of potential work days from 260 to 228 (on average), since the number of weeks in a year would fall from 52 to 45.6. On the face of it, this implies an annual loss of productivity of about 12 per cent.

But wait. These raw numbers ignore non-weekend holidays and annual vacation leave, which could be distributed to the weekends, thus compensating in whole or in part for the loss of working days . They also fail to take into account the productivity increases likely to result from a more rested workforce.

With three days instead of two between work weeks, both women and men would find it easier to juggle jobs and family, and everyone would have more opportunity to enjoy the arts, hobbies, sports and entertainment.

Although the creation of additional family time would by itself warrant adoption of an eight-day week, the environmental benefits are also worth mentioning. Perhaps the greatest and most immediate impact would be the reduction of automobile usage in metropolitan areas. With car owners able to celebrate long weekends every week, their likely exodus to the countryside would allow time for polluted city air to dissipate.

Other possible effects of the eight-day week include increased tourism on a year-round basis (with a resulting distribution of wealth), greater support of the arts, and reduced unemployment as a result of the increased shift-work slots.

What can be done to make the eight-day week, with its regular three-day weekends, a reality? In the interest of alleviating "time poverty", the politicians could advocate an international convention to change the week globally from seven days to eight days. An international conference on the subject would be good way to start.

In the meantime, individual employers could adopt eight-day schedules in the context of the traditional seven-day week. The resultant rotation of staff members would immediately bring them two important benefits: seven-day business accessibility and an almost 30 percent increase in space availability.

An eight-day week offers significant time and other rewards, but long- standing conventions as basic as the days of the week are resistant to change. Political courage, not money, is what is required now to make time for families.

Michael Hager is the director of the International Development Law Institute in Rome