Without careful design, a four-day work week could make inequality worse

The world’s largest-ever four-day working week trials were carried out in Iceland, and last week they were declared ‘an overwhelming success’, so what are we waiting for?

Jake Shepherd
Thursday 15 July 2021 10:00
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<p>‘The expected benefits of a four-day week include improved health and wellbeing, enhanced worker motivation and engagement, increased productivity’</p>

‘The expected benefits of a four-day week include improved health and wellbeing, enhanced worker motivation and engagement, increased productivity’

Has the time for a four-day week finally arrived? It has been adopted by businesses, backed by governments throughout the world, and identified as a potential solution to the economic trauma caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It is an exciting policy idea that deserves to be pondered, pursued, and, where possible, practised – but that is not to say it isn’t without its challenges.

In the UK, the scheme is most commonly presented as a four-day, 32-hour working week without any reduction in pay. The specifics and practicalities remain open to deliberation, and as interest in the idea continues to blossom, so does the number of variants.

Different versions of the shortened workweek have now been proposed in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Spain and New Zealand. Even more recently, the world’s largest-ever trials were carried out in Iceland, and last week they were declared “an overwhelming success”.

The expected benefits of a four-day week, many of which are supported by international research, are manifold. They range from improved health and wellbeing, enhanced worker motivation and engagement, increased productivity, reduced unemployment, and possibly even lower carbon emissions.

The positive case for a shortened working week is a compelling one, but some arguments in favour of the proposal need more evidence to back them up. For example, it is plausible but far from certain that increased leisure time will lead people to make healthier, more sustainable lifestyle choices, as proponents claim.

Similarly, it seems optimistic to expect an increase in free time to prompt men to take on a greater share of domestic work from women without a significant cultural shift to alter deep-seated gender norms. Previous research has suggested that many men simply will not want to bear the burden of unpaid work.

Then there are the practical challenges of implementing a shorter working week. France’s 35-hour week, introduced at the turn of the millennium, has shown that a one size fits all approach is unlikely to work. Some sectors and workplaces, such as hospitals, were unable to adapt quickly enough, resulting in staff shortages and the intensification of work.

Additionally, socially and economically disadvantaged groups were most likely to be worse off as a result of the changes – with some ending up with lower pay. The French experience is a warning of what can go wrong when a shortened working week hits the rails.

With these benefits and challenges in mind, new research published earlier this week by the Social Market Foundation looked to uncover exactly who wants and would stand to benefit from a four-day week, and what this means for the case for reform. We used official data to show that a large majority of workers – 80 per cent – would not want to work fewer hours if it meant taking a pay cut.

Our work is quite deliberately asking a question that has generally been under-explored in this debate, as previous polling and analysis tends to ask people about their support for a shorter week with no loss of pay.

Campaigners for a four day week seem to be aware of these public attitudes, which is why they tend to insist that the plan must involve no reduction in pay. But that merely raises the question of who, if not workers, will bear the cost.

The think tank Autonomy has suggested that in a best-case scenario, improvements in productivity would be large enough to ensure that nobody is any worse off. For some firms and sectors, that may well be the case. On average, across the economy, productivity would need to rise by around 15 per cent for a four-day week to pay for itself, and some trials have reported productivity increases of 20 to 40 per cent.

However, such large increases may not be achievable everywhere and over a sustained period, and for jobs and industries with particularly long hours, the necessary gains begin to look implausible.

If productivity does not rise by enough, Autonomy expects firms to pick up the tab, and their modelling suggests that most businesses would not go under, although some could face cash flow problems. However, it is worth considering the possibility that higher costs could be passed onto consumers through higher prices (a pay cut by another name). There may be a role for government subsidies to avoid the risk of such an outcome.

Admittedly, it is not exactly groundbreaking to say that workers do not want less money. But it is interesting that a sizeable minority – 11 per cent of workers  – would be willing to take a pay cut for shorter hours. This points to a strong appetite for change from certain parts of the labour market, and indicates where the rollout of the four-day week should be focused.

This offers grounds for optimism for advocates of the four-day week but, much like the French example, it also provides a warning that the benefits of a four-day week might not be as progressive as we might hope. Those in white-collar professions and more senior, higher-paying jobs are most likely to want shorter hours, whereas lower earners are more likely to want (or need) to work more hours. Women already work 32 hours a week on average, and at least some men will resist a reduction in working hours.

All this demonstrates that a shorter week is not by itself a panacea for social inequality. As such, additional policies may be needed to help complement the reform, and make sure that the gains are widely and fairly shared. That requires careful thinking in designing the policy package.

The four-day week could radically transform how we work and live our lives, changing society for the better. The UK should be considering the idea, just like other nations are. But the realities of putting it into practice raise a number of questions – not least about who (if anyone) will have to pay for it. There is much careful consideration and work to be done if we are to achieve its full potential.

Jake Shepherd is a researcher at the Social Market Foundation

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