By Thomas Judge
IT is widely acknowledged by many that the current standard forty-hour, typically over five days, working week is one of the greatest achievements of the early labour movement in the twentieth century.
Its advance was so prominent that it led many at the time to believe it would be the first in many steps to reduce the working hours of the population of advanced industrial countries.
Famously, the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the average working week would be fifteen hours by the turn of the millennium.
This prediction obviously did not come to pass.
However, the demand has remerged, with calls for a four-day working week across society being heard regularly. Some companies are already moving forward and implementing a thirty-two-hour working week with no loss of pay. So, has the move to a four-day working week become politically inevitable again?
During the 2019 election, the Labour Party moved to back a four day, thirty-two hour week.
The manifesto pledged that “Within a decade we will reduce average full-time weekly working hours to 32 across the economy” – however, how this was going to be achieved was very thin.
The policy was seen as tacked on at the last minute. This inclusion, and the commitment to free universal broadband, were seen as the two significant new policy offerings which made the party look desperate during the campaign.
Since the Labour defeat, many left-wing policies, the four-day work week, particularly, have seen support solidify or grow. Although the inclusion in the 2019 manifesto may have damaged Labour at the time – returning simply to the 2017 manifesto might have been more advantageous as by that point it was very well known – the policies inclusion may have helped propel its current popularity.
Written by three researchers from The New Economics Foundation – Anna Coote, Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling – and published this year, ‘The Case for A Four Day Week’ succinctly highlights a lot of the benefits of the idea and also lays out ways the policy could be implemented.
The benefits are plentiful. A smaller carbon footprint, increased mental wellbeing, and an overall rise in productivity. They also write that “the unprecedented disruption of social and economic norms brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic” might help speed up the change in working patterns and improved conditions.
The research the foundation does, distilled into this short book, adds weight to the idea that was missing in 2019.
The roadmap to implementing the policy gives multiple routes which could help bring the overall average working hours down, from boosting holiday leave and adding extra bank holidays to collective bargaining, tapered retirement, and strengthening and enforcing working rights.
In a move announced last month, Atom Bank has begun a trial period of moving all of its staff to a four day, 32-hour working week with no loss of pay.
As a newer UK bank built with smartphones and online banking in mind, and no physical branches, this seems like an easier move – they won’t have to rearrange shifts for in-person branches, for example – however, it is a big step.
Some might see historical parallels with how the five-day week came into being. Companies like Ford moving to a five-day week sparked the transition across all workplaces in western industrial nations.
A problem with any proliferation of four day working weeks amongst jobs like this is that it inherently gives more rights to the middle earners while keeping low wage employees on longer, often more gruelling, hours.
For example, if an office shifts to a four day week, will the cleaners, who might not be employed by the business itself but the office building, also see a reduction in working hours with no loss of pay?
There have also been some high profile trials in other nations and inside prolific companies. Iceland is the only place to try it on a national scale, albeit with a very small population, and the results have been described in glowing terms.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Japan also conducted a trial, detailing the results extensively, stating positive results. Although it was only a month-long trial, whether it will be permanent is yet to be seen.
While some workplaces can reduce working hours across the board and see no loss in productivity – the extra rest has seen an increase in output amongst staff who participate – some workplaces cannot do this.
For example, in the NHS, or an extensive range of caring roles, any reduction in hours will need to be replaced with extra staff. Implementing a 32-hour working week across the organisation while not cutting pay will increase staff costs significantly and require a massive surge in recruitment. Although, a better-rested staff is likely to make far fewer errors, which can be costly or harmful.
The same is true of primary and secondary education. Do we switch to a system where kids only attend school four days a week, or are extra teachers required to plug the gap in time?
One problem that both these sectors have in common is staff retention. Both public sector teachers and the NHS have a problem retaining staff, as many leave the sectors early as burnout can drain them.
Many teachers work far more than forty hours per week, not teaching but marking and form filling. An overall reduction in working hours may slow or even reverse this trend in these sectors.
Of course, a complete societal shift to a four day week is unlikely to occur under a Conservative government, and with the top of the Labour Party shifting further to the right, it looks unlikely to take place under a Labour one either.
A continuing shift by private sector companies could prove important – particularly if gains are made through Union action – as it will normalise the idea to more people, and increase demand for it to be implemented in more workplaces.
But of course, the place to look too is the Labour grassroots, which remains to the left of the leadership, and if pressure can force the Party to adopt the position its leadership seems reluctant to.
Even a soft-left government that conducted major trials could prove monumental in the idea taking root and gaining consensus across the electorate.
Twentieth-century optimism in the inevitability of further working hours reduction proved short-sighted.
Still, in the contemporary era, we know the advantages of the four day week acutely, and while its universal implementation is not inevitable, its likelihood only seems to be growing.
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