Every week, across the country, millions of Wine O’Clock Aunts will put up their weekly “Friday feeling” Facebook statuses. These posts will express their feelings of anticipation for the impending prospect of their long awaited weekend plans. Similarly, in volume three of Capital, Marx argued that “the realm of freedom” begins only when work, or “the realm of necessity”, ceases. Both Marx and your aunt grasp the same fundamental truth: true freedom starts when work ends.
This is an obvious conclusion increasingly ignored by a culture which both implicitly and explicitly defines people’s worth through their perceived commitment to their labour. The romanticised image of the hardworking family has dominated mainstream UK politics in recent times and has been used to justify harsh welfare cuts. This mentality has been incredibly damaging.
This is not to argue for the post-work society articulated by the fully automated luxury communists. Their vision of a post-scarcity society delivered by technological progress has yet to show convincingly how it will function in an era of transformational global climate change. Even Marx accepted the “realm of necessity” as, well, necessary. However, as social democrats, to achieve a politics that is truly emancipatory, we must acknowledge the reality of modern work.
The four day week is a reformist policy, not a radical one. It stands in the tradition of other great union campaigns such as for the weekend and the eight hour day. The battle to rebalance our work and leisure time has been a long one but it is one we should be prepared to continue. At the TUC’s annual conference, its general secretary Frances O’Grady called for the introduction of the four day week in this century. This acknowledgement of the need for a new struggle for leisure time was welcome, but the demand was far too unambitious. A four day week is a solution to today’s problems, not tomorrow’s.
Modern work’s relationship with the nation’s mental health is worth exploring. The four day week could be transformational in this area. Already public health experts are calling for its introduction and studies show that reducing the working day increases productivity, reduces stress and reduces sick leave. More family time, more time to explore creative pursuits and more time for exercise should lead to an increase in worker wellbeing and a reduction in anxiety and stress. A workforce that is fresher, healthier and more fulfilled is bound to be more productive too. This is not just theory. Where it has been trialed, the results back it up. In the 1970s, Edward Heath was forced to implement a three day week. Production output fell, but only by 6%. A 40% decrease in working hours leading to a 6% fall in output indicates that a significant amount of our normal time at work is wasted. In fact, some research suggests we spend on average only 2 hours and 53 minutes of our 8 hour day actually working.
Equally important is the potential for the policy to help mitigate impending rapid environmental changes. If we are wasting this much time at work, think about how much energy we must be wasting too. How much power is being used to run offices during unproductive time? How about the potential effect on CO2 emissions of taking away a day’s worth of commuting every week? The environmental impact of a four day week should not be underestimated. This is another reason why this policy should be adopted by reformists as well as radicals. The reality of life in the late 2010s is that we are living through the early stages of ecological disaster. The modern social democrat must constantly be considering this context when devising policy solutions. There is increasingly a requirement for radical sounding adjustments to the way society is organised. The four day week can be one such adjustment.
The battle for leisure time has long been a crucial part of the left’s historic mission. Ecological disaster, a mental health crisis and a productivity puzzle make this mission more important than ever. The fight for a four day week is a fight for nothing less than the right for us all to occupy the realm of freedom for just a little bit longer.