A four-day working week is within our grasp

A new report from Autonomy proposes a radical set of policies to boost the economy and improve quality of life by shortening the working week, writes Eleanor Penny

February 1, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Emil Athanasiou.

Whenever the government fumbles around desperately for the story they can sell as success, they often reach for the following statistic: that since the Conservatives took power in 2010, unemployment has dropped, and more people than ever are in work. But this simple story conceals a much more worrying truth – that work simply doesn’t guarantee a decent standard of living any more. Official statistics gloss over the effects of semi-employment, self-employment, self-unemployment, zero-hours contracts and a shrinking in real wages, leaving four million people in in-work poverty. The sluggish growth of the apparent recovery is distorted by financial markets, and concentrated largely in the hands of the wealthy – particularly in the South of England. What growth does trickle down to the average worker is eaten up by inflation and falling wages. In other words, UK workers are in dire need of radical change to deliver a more just economy. And with automation promising to turf more jobs onto the scrapheap, maybe it’s time to stop thinking about how to “Get Britain working” – but how to share out labour more fairly across the workforce.

The think tank Autonomy have published a report detailing how shortening the working week from five days to four could be beneficial for the UK’s exhausted workforce, for employers and for the economy as a whole. Our current model of work relies on a toxic mix of over-work and under employment – where many are slogging through eighty hour work weeks, with others on precarious zero-hours contracts. And this is without counting the millions of hours of unpaid domestic and care work – performed largely by women – on which the economy depends. Politicians have reliably responded to crises of employment by slashing wages and putting more power in the hands of bosses to hire and fire at will. But in reality, this offers little hope of returning a better quality of life to working people, the country’s real wealth-creators. And absolutely no hope of responding to the larger structural crises our economy is facing; from climate crisis to  .

Instead, Autonomy’s report advocates a package of pragmatic steps to ensure the rollout of a shorter working week, without a reduction of pay. Such steps include six extra bank holidays, and an adoption of a four-day work structure across the public sector – which would act as an innovator and benchmark for best practise. This would be coupled with a ‘UK Working Time Directive’ to set a limit on the maximum of weekly hours worked, aiming for a cap of 32 hours by 2025. The legal approach needs to be bolstered by worker power to hold bosses and stakeholders to account; the report prescribes sectoral collective bargaining structures, expanding worker representation to “increase equality and security in the years to come”

The report aims to prove that a four-day working week isn’t a distant utopian horizon – it’s entirely within our grasp. All that’s lacking is the political will. But with scant government support for pro-worker legislation in the aftermath of the Trade Union bill, that might seem like an unlikely hurdle to scale. But really, the policy has gained increasing traction over recent years amongst activists, academics and policymakers alike. To translate grassroots enthusiasm into nuts and bolts policymaking, the report recommends that the government set up a Ministry of Labour, tasked with working the technological, financial and legal gears at its disposal to roll out a UK four-day full-time working week by 2025. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has given his seal of approval to the idea: “With millions saying they would like to work shorter hours, and millions of others without a job or wanting more hours, it’s essential that we consider how we address the problems in the labour market as well as preparing for the future challenges of automation.”

A four day working week might be just the vital prescription for an ailing economy. UK productivity is crawling through one of the worst slumps in the G7 – exacerbated by an exhausted workforce whose mental and physical health is measurably suffering from the effects of overwork. Indeed, there’s no correlation between long hours and productivity; “Germany is more productive but works fewer hours on average than the UK, while Mexico and Greece are less productive but work significantly more than workers in Britain”. Quite the opposite: Good quality, well-paid jobs shared throughout the workforce promise to combat the triple harms of in-work poverty, precarity and over-work – all of which bode well for overall productivity. It’s clear that this four-day week needs to come alongside a much-needed pay rise for Britain. A fair deal for working families could also mean also tonic to dangerous debt-driven consumption patterns which threaten an already feeble recovery.

More time off coupled with expanded parental (and particularly paternal leave) aims to rectify the yawning gender gap both in pay and in unpaid work. Repeated studies have shown that the massively uneven distribution of unpaid care work has direct knock-on effects in the paid workplace.

The report trains its sights not simply on a set of emergency measures to kick-start the economy, but on the greater epochal challenges already testing the limits of our standard policy solutions. Rutger Bregman, historian and author of Utopia for Realists has called it “a path-breaking report on one of the most promising ideas of our time”. Current models of work are the bedrock of a growth-driven economy which has proved disastrous for the environment. Orientating towards an economy which prioritises metrics of health, equality and human flourishing instead of in the workplace promises to pair environmental justice with an improved quality of life, giving the lie to the age-old myth that reigning in climate change requires us all to take a cut in living conditions. In addition, the report “recommends engaging with broader economic reforms such a universal basic income and services as well as sovereign wealth funds, in order to sustainably support life outside of work.”

Accelerating automation is already wiping out some jobs, whilst hollowing out the market for middle-income positions, further exacerbating an enormous wage gap between top earners and average. Many have feared mass layoffs and poverty in a the face of a robot-driven job apocalypse. But a shorter working week, combined with upskilling and reskilling could mean more well-paid employment with more time off. In other words, we could all share in the leisure time made possible by technological advances. Indeed, we’re way behind John Maynard Keynes’ schedule; he prophesied that by now we’d all be working fifteen hour weeks. Advances in labour-saving technology have set this possibility very much on the agenda – the only problem being that the people who own the robots have a distinct tendency to hoard the resultant leisure time for themselves.

This is where the report implies a much more radical set of restructurings than its reliably pragmatic tone implies. Successive governments have responded to structural crises by attempting to crush the power of organised labour, under the auspices of ‘incentivising employment’. In reality, that has meant slashed wages, increased precarity, and critical underinvestment in productive sectors. The first step to securing a shorter working week, which prioritises human flourishing as a fundamental part of a healthy economy, is to put power back in the hands of workers. That’s something we should all get behind.

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