Could we embrace the four-day working week and all that it brings?

There is obviously a conflict between policies which seek to reduce work, and those which seek to punish people for not working enough

Phil McDuff
Sunday 27 June 2021 12:49 BST
<p>The four-day working week is being tested in countries including Ireland, Scotland and Spain</p>

The four-day working week is being tested in countries including Ireland, Scotland and Spain

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea of the four-day working week is picking up speed around the world. Societies made necessary changes to combat the spread of the virus, and people are now beginning to wonder how many of those we need to reverse. Among these is the question of the standard nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday model of a “proper” working week – is that really necessary, or is it just a habit?

Ireland, Spain, Scotland and even Japan have pushed forward programmes to test this idea. A recent study by the 4 Day Week Campaign showed that reducing the work week by one day would reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by more than 20 per cent.

Reduced working hours have also been shown to be good for our physical and mental well-being. While it’s true that there are some benefits to work – people generally do not like to be unemployed – research suggests that these benefits can be gained with as little as one to eight hours of work a week.

A four-day week doesn’t seem to cause any economic problems either. In 2019, a Microsoft subsidiary in Japan conducted a month-long test by closing its offices every Friday for a month, and found that productivity rose by almost 40 per cent.

The four-day week is also a popular idea (as you might expect). A recent report from Survation showed that 64 per cent of people surveyed supported the idea of a four-day working week with no loss of pay, and only 13 per cent opposed the idea.

However, that’s only half the story. The Labour Party had the four-day week in its 2019 manifesto, and resoundingly lost the election. British society has an overdeveloped aversion to the idea that someone, somewhere, might be getting something they don’t deserve, coupled with a belief that loads of people are absolutely coining it while the rest of us slog away in the salt mines to pay for it. There are always votes in targeting the “scroungers” and the “shirkers”.

There is obviously a conflict between policies which seek to reduce work, and those which seek to punish people for not working enough. After years and years of pushing the narrative that workshy scroungers simply need to get on their bikes, and of introducing ever-more punitive measures into the benefits system to battle the ever-present spectre of “welfare cheats”, would we be able to adopt a policy that working less is a  good thing?

Max Weber argued in the early 1900s that the “Protestant work ethic” was key to the development of capitalism and the economic success of the West. This may be historically dubious, but it does shore up the convenient just-so story that people get what they deserve.

The poor are idle, and the idle are poor; the rich are diligent, and the diligent are rich. That this so often conflicts with our experiences of the diligent poor and the idle rich is a mere triviality compared to the security that believing “I got here by my own hard work” can give a person. Whether it’s true or not, people want to believe it.

Such biases are almost certainly rooted in an instinctive desire for fair play and against “free riding”. Even dogs and monkeys understand the basic idea of fairness. It’s not hard to understand why, when everyone in a tribe needs to dig up roots and forage berries, those who eat without foraging or digging would soon become unpopular.

However, these social conventions are counterproductive when a capitalist society with plentiful spare resources suddenly finds itself in the middle of a global pandemic, and the best course of action for society is to discourage as much non-vital work as possible.

You could see this conflict in play as the Conservative Party worried out loud that people would become “addicted” to the furlough scheme, rather than focusing on whether their policies were achieving the goal of keeping enough people at home.

The pandemic also emphasised our reliance upon our precariat class of gig workers, the people who keep our food and deliveries cheap. Would it be possible to institute policies designed to reduce working hours, while maintaining a subclass of work with low pay and long hours? Would the British middle class end up only supporting a policy of four days for me but not for thee – and therefore keep the benefits away from those who, arguably, need them most?

As the coronavirus tide recedes, many questions like this will be raised. Can we, as a society, make decisions based on collective good? Or will we, like crabs in a bucket, find ourselves unable to shift our old biases?

Phil McDuff is a freelance journalist who writes on economics and social policy

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