The future means working less. This is the new common sense that has emerged in Britain and across the globe in recent years. We’ve seen a flurry of books pushing for a shorter working week, trade unions such as the Communications Workers Union winning reductions in hours for its members and “4 Day Week” campaigns created both inside and outside the Labour party.
Almost every week a new company announces that it operates with a four-day week or is at least trialling it. Whether it’s a data design company such as Normally, a marketing company such as Pursuit Marketing or a call centre like Simply Business, a four-day week is quickly becoming a sign of best practice. The Monday to Friday working week we inhabit today is, of course, a social and historical construct. While it might appear as a “natural” configuration of time, the reality is that our 37-hour working week, and the weekend, are the result of labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries demanding limits to the toil that industrialism had imposed upon them. American unions famously won the weekend, Australian unions won the eight-hour day and working class pressure here in Britain resulted in the two-day weekend being firmly normalised after the second world war.
Why should we demand a shorter working week today? For a start, it would address the huge problem of overwork that permeates our labour market. In 2017-18, 57% of all sick days were due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression, and 44% of these were caused by workload pressure alone. In the UK we work some of the longest hours in Europe – as the report identifies – and we enjoy the fewest national holidays. With more time to recover and recuperate, workers will perform better, enjoy their work more and inevitably take less sick leave. Numerous studies on existing four-day week companies have shown that productivity relies not just on the sheer number of hours put in, but on the wellbeing, fatigue levels and overall health of the worker too.
The latest sign that this once radical thinking is becoming economic common sense is the release today of a report by the economic historian Robert Skidelsky, and commissioned by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Even its title, How to achieve shorter working hours, suggests that the debate has moved on from questions of desirability and is now concerned with feasibility.
Skidelsky is one of the world’s leading experts on Keynesian economics and the report is very much in this vein, advocating a return to a high-investment economy with strong trade unions at the fore. It was Keynes who famously predicted that by 2030 we would (or perhaps should?) all be working 15-hour working weeks. He argued that the nature of industrial development was such that ever more efficient and productive technologies would reduce necessary labour time while providing abundance for all. The main thrust of Keynes’s argument makes sense: with each gain in productivity we could…