The long struggle to finally consign the standard five-day working week to history has been making headlines recently. Biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust – the world’s second wealthiest charitable foundation – announced that it was considering introducing a four-day working week for its staff.
That followed the revelation that shadow chancellor John McDonnell has commissioned a study into the economic feasibility of making a four-day week the standard across UK industry and commerce.
And while many worry that technologies like robotics and AI will force people out of work, the TUC used its conference last year to claim that the £200bn boost to the economy such innovations could bring over the next decade would mean everyone could feasibly work less whilst earning the same.
But as the case for an improved work-life balance strengthens, the question is – are we being ambitious enough? While the campaign for reduced working hours has coalesced around the four-day week, should we in fact be setting our sights higher by pushing for a three-day working week instead? Could Tuesday to Thursday ever become the new Monday to Friday?
A Keynesian future
This is not as radical as it sounds. As far back as the 1930s, the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, technological progress would mean most people could work just 15 hours a week and still enjoy incomes high enough to enjoy all the free leisure time they had.
We’re not as far from this futuristic Keynesian world as you might think. One of the great anxieties of the early 21st century is that, due to a combination of population growth and digitised industrialisation, the supply of human labour now far outstrips demand. With intensive farming supplying the masses with food and automated machines taking care of production, there just isn’t that much left for people to do. There is even a movement pondering the possibility of a completely workless future.
The anxiety around this is that it would require a radical readjustment of our entire economic model. As things stand, if there are not enough jobs to go round, then people can’t earn, and if they can’t earn they can neither provide for themselves nor take part in the consumer economy. For people who are wedded to this model of how things should be, having people out of work, economically inactive and, heavens forbid, reliant on state support is a frightfully inconvenient state of affairs.
Perhaps one day a revolution in the economic order which decouples labour from economic participation will be inevitable. But as a stop gap in the meantime, wouldn’t it make sense to follow the Keynesian idea and significantly reduce the standard working hours?
In some respects, this is exactly what is happening in the UK, but neither consistently nor fairly. The current government is proud of its high employment figures, but it hardly does a very good job hiding the truth behind them, i.e. the number of people working part-time, entering the ‘gig economy’ on zero hour contracts or leaving employment to work for themselves, often with no security whatsoever.
And this reveals the challenge of reduced working hours – many households relying on part-time work or casual work are struggling financially. Resistance to a four-day or three-day working week largely comes from people refusing to countenance a drop in their income.
That is why it will be very interesting to hear the final conclusions from the shadow chancellor’s report into the four-day week. Hopefully, it will not rest on whether a wholesale reduction in hours is currently feasible, but will dig further into what would have to happen to allow people to work less but earn the same.
There are plenty of good reasons why a wholesale reduction in working hours should make economic sense. As many people, from Keynes to the TUC, have pointed out, the extra efficiencies brought by technology should not threaten earnings – if output remains the same, it shouldn’t matter how long people work, income should remain at the same level. Coupled with that, if people have three or four days off a week, they are more likely to come into work refreshed, happy and stress free, able and willing to work at maximum productivity.
When you factor in the advantages of reduced childcare bills for young families and more solid jobs to go round, bringing people back into stable employment from zero-hours gigs, it is not too hard to imagine a scenario where reduced hours actually helps to stimulate the economy by giving more people more disposable income.
It’s certainly a compelling vision – the Tuesday to Thursday workforce, driving future prosperity thanks to a better work ethic, less work-related illness and more time to spend their spare money. Whether Keynes’s prediction of this sort of world arriving by 2030 will come to pass, that’s another question.