Autonomy’s report “The Shorter Working Week: A Radical and Pragmatic Proposal” is the type of document I was screaming out for when I wrote my first piece for the Social Review. Its title embodying the exact sentiment that I was trying to convey in For a Four Day Week. A shorter working week isn’t merely a policy confined to high-minded idealism, it represents a pragmatic reorganisation of work that strikes right at the heart of 21st century malaise. Its basis lies in the long tradition of worker-led campaigns of the past, the seemingly ‘disruptive’ nature of the request says more about the crisis of imagination in contemporary politics than the unreasonableness of the demand.
Autonomy start their report with a flowchart contrasting our current model of work with a possible future. Modern work’s problems include low productivity caused by poor mental health and wellbeing, gender inequality, precarious work, overwork and a high carbon footprint. The optimum model is one where a highly-skilled workforce is happy, healthy and productive with access to quality, well-paid and secure employment within an environmentally sustainable economy. Crucially, unpaid and paid work must be distributed more equally across genders.
The idea that this degree of reorganisation is not realistic is ahistorical. As the Autonomy report argues, the “9 to 5, 5 days a week” model has existed for just 50 years and even this has gone through some rapid alterations in this time. Something that hasn’t changed, however, is the disproportionate way in which the burden of unpaid labour such as care, cooking and cleaning falls upon the shoulders of women. According to the report, the number of hours of unpaid work women do each week is roughly the same as it was 20 years ago. A shorter working week, in tandem with a degendering of domestic labour, could go some way to redressing this imbalance.
Looking at other countries reveals the arbitrary nature of the existing order of things too: the difference in productivity between the UK and Germany means that a German worker has produced as much as a British worker does in a week by early Thursday lunchtime. Other examples given by Autonomy demonstrate the feasibility of such a reorganisation of work time. A four day week already works well in Provo (Utah) and the experience of 30 hour weeks have shown positive signs in workplaces as varied as Swedish nursing homes and Toyota factories (the latter producing 114% of what it used to produce in 40 hour weeks!). While the legal introduction of the 35 hour week in France is a warning against allowing work time reduction to intensify labour (and thus negate positive effects), it serves as a useful reminder for the need of strong regulatory frameworks to construct positive working cultures.
Most crucially, the shortening of the working week is a key demand in a time of environmental and ecological breakdown. The report details the strong relationship between long working hours and high carbon emissions: this is because long working hours encourage energy intensive patterns of consumption. This observation holds even when controlling for income. Many studies cited by the report attempt to model the precise impact of shortening hours on carbon emissions. Nassen and Larsson (2015) found that a 1% decrease in working hours could be followed by a 0.8% decrease in emissions which would mean a four day week would lead to a reduction in emissions of 16%. Clearly, this would be a significant achievement for a policy with plenty of benefits on its own terms.
One of these benefits is to address the wellbeing crisis of modern work. Overwork is the cause of one quarter of all sick days in the UK and poor mental health is costing employers £33-42 billion. The report presents evidence that suggests, unsurprisingly, having time to psychologically detach from work via ample rest and engaging in non-obligatory activity is highly beneficial to worker wellbeing and productivity.
This all sounds great, obviously. A policy that reduces carbon emissions, addresses gender inequality and allows us all to live happier lives seems like a silver bullet. But realistically, how can we possibly get there? The report suggests a raft of policies that could begin to aid such a transition. A key demand is the need to strengthen collective bargaining through sectoral structures, worker representation and the reestablishment of a Ministry of Labour. Meanwhile, a new UK Working Time Directive could gradually decrease with a target of 32 hours by 2025. The UK currently has the lowest number of bank holidays in Europe and these should be increased from 8 to 14, paternity leave should be extended to 18 weeks reserved for use during the first two years of a child’s life and trials of a four day week should be run in the public sector. A carbon tax should be introduced and ring fenced to partially fund Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services schemes to allow people on lower incomes to work shorter weeks if they wish. Alongside this the existing minimum wage should be set at a real living wage which takes into account a shorter working week. Together, these policies would create the conditions in which a complete reorganisation of the current model of work can take place.
While this would represent a radical reorganisation of work, it would also represent a pragmatic one. It would see real steps taken towards addressing the crises of the moment. Our moment is defined by climate breakdown on a global level, low productivity on a national level and precarity and anxiety on a personal level. The four day week begins to tap into all three of these stories while taking a cue from worker struggles of the past. The 8 hour day and the 5 day week are not natural, and although they may seem unassailable they are the direct product of political struggles and arguments. We must have the ambition and imagination to break new ground and embrace the demands of the 21st century.