Essay: Bring on the Four Day Working Week

25 Sep|Tom Hodgkinson

Lunchtime at the St Pancras workhouse

THE NEWS that billionaire Virgin boss Richard Branson has suggested that his employees should take holidays whenever they like is an encouraging sign that business is finally moving away from a Victorian model where wage slaves were squeezed for profit.

Back in the 1930s, economists, intellectuals and trade union leaders were united in the belief that a shorter working day was fast approaching. The machines would shoulder more and more of the toil, they reckoned, leaving lots of time off for workers. A three or four day week would be ample to procure the necessities of life. The increase in leisure would be spent pursuing healthful recreations such as philosophy, dancing, sewing, cooking and wandering through the woods collecting mushrooms.

This was the view of John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in 1930 that by 2030 all economic problems would have been solved and the only issue left to deal with would be how to enjoy doing nothing without having a nervous breakdown. He was, perhaps surprisingly, an opponent of the work ethic. “We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” he wrote in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, predicting that, in one hundred years’ time, “We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.”

Bertrand Russell shared this Christ-like disdain for striving and argued for the four hour day. Oscar Wilde had predicted that the machine would be the saviour of man and would lead everyone to enjoy the life of an Athenian aristocrat: instead of toiling in the mills, we would wander through the groves and discuss atomism and the meaning of the “good life”. His contemporary Walt Whitman wrote of the ideal he called “higher progress”, in other words the liberation of human beings from wage slavery in favour of lazing about and reading books.

This democratic leisure ideal in fact had been a key element of the dream of the Founding Fathers. The second president, John Adams, forecast that his grandchildren would have the time to study “painting, poetry, music, architecture” and the other liberal arts, in short, that everyday life would be organised to allow the “pursuit of happiness”.

Things didn’t quite turn out like that. In the hands of a capitalist élite, supported by governments in most cases, the machine became an instrument for the creation of huge profits for a few, while the majority toiled long hours. The doctrine of consumption rather than time off was introduced. The ad industry created new wants and desires. In the US in 1933 a thirty workweek bill was derailed by Roosevelt. He abandoned the “more leisure” philosophy in favour of a “full-time, full employment” goal. Both socialist and capitalist governments promoted the ideology of hard work. Trades unions forgot about shorter hours and quality of life, and instead concentrated on wages and conditions. Still today, George Osborne and David Miliband alike hold up the ideal of “hard-working families” engaged in a “global race”. Long hours culture has become the norm and the rich —once proud loafers — now boast about how hard they work. The so-called “strivers” are honoured, not Keynes’s teachers of good living.

After nearly one hundred years in the wilderness, however, these older and nobler ideals of a leisure-filled society are showing signs of returning to the mainstream political agenda, with the new campaign for the thirty hour workweek.

The thirty hour week has fans on the left. Earlier this year a Scottish think tank called The Jimmy Reid Foundation, named after the late trade union activist, whose backers include Alex Ferguson, released a report titled “Time for Life” recommending that Scotland reduce the working week. The Jimmy Reid Foundation is linked to a new Scottish political group called The Common Weal, which it says, aims to return power back to the people and help resist the domination of big corporations.

Work should be more evenly spread out, says the report, whose authors include musician Pat Kane: “Many people work too much whilst others struggle to find work.” Again, this idea echoes Keynes, who wrote: “We shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done as widely shared as possible.” Goodbye unemployment!

The lefty, greenish New Economics Foundation, funded by philanthropists such as Hadley Trust, Oxfam, the Oak Foundation and others, also campaigns for a shorter workweek. In 2013 it published a pamphlet called “Time on our Side: Why we all need a shorter working week”, which argued that more leisure leads to less pressure on resources and more fun. The authors say that the UK has the longest working hours of any European country. They also claim that productivity does not suffer when the working week is shortened because work is carried out more efficiently.

In 2012 the NEF published a charming pamphlet also calling for a shorter working week. “National Gardening Leave: Why Britain would be better off if we all spent less time at the office”, by Andrew Simms and Molly Conisbee, pictures a future where we spend more time in the garden or on the allotment. To those who might sneer that such ideas are mere bucolic fantasy, the authors point out that something like this did actually happen during the second world war. It was called “Dig for Victory” and we were all encouraged to grow vegetables, keep chickens and make our our food.

In the States the issue reared its head thanks to the Obamacare bill, which defined full-time work as thirty hours per week. This led to a debate about the working week between Democrats and Republicans, and the eventual removal of this definition from the bill earlier this month.

At the Idler we have aways argued that working long hours for a large company is almost like being a slave and very much like being an indentured employee, because we tend to buy our consumer goods and services on the credit card, and then settle up later.

Resources-wise, the best thing you can do for the planet, it could be argued, is absolutely nothing. To take a day off and lie on your back in the park all day is completely free, harms no-one and demands no fossil fuel inputs.

And what would we do with all this freedom? Sit around and watch Jeremy Kyle all day? No, say its defenders. Leisure is not just for shopping and TV. In our spare time we will do the things that bring us pleasure. Remember hobbies? We’ll be less stressed out and healthier as a result.

And while we in the UK may be just thinking about a four-day week, those plucky Swedes have gone ahead and done it. The council at Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, have announced that they are to begin a year-long thirty-hour week trial for city workers. “We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days,” said Deputy Mayor Mats Pilhem.

On the Right the reaction to shortening the working day is generally for the bigwigs to scoff into their Merlot and mutter about excessive regulation. “This is just more cloud-cuckoo land thinking from the Common Weal,” spluttered Murdo Fraser, Tory MSP spokesman in reaction to the idea of a four day workweek for Scotland. And mention the idea to the leaders of the CBI, “the voice of business”, and you’ll get them spitting their lobster down your front.

But even the utilitarian arguments don’t stand up. There is a quite a body of evidence to suggest that longer hours do not lead to greater productivity. The three day week in the seventies, for example, led to a drop of only 6% in productivity.

The strivers still have the upper hand, it’s true. The futurologists look forward to a more efficient human being. They are hoping to create brain implants which will increase productivity. Some claim that in the future, man will be able to do without that inconvenient necessity, sleep. Still more reckon that we can get rid of another pesky nuisance when it comes to growth in GDP: death. Mad. And sociologists have recently noted the phenomenon of busy-ness as a status symbol: the super-rich are also proud to say how super-busy they are. The Right in general enthusiastically embraces such techno-utopianism.

On this issue though, history shows that the Right is wrong. Positive and humanitarian changes to the working day, which lead to an improved quality of daily life, have traditionally come from the Left: in 1810 socialist Robert Owen started campaigning for the ten hour day. Early working hours were completely unregulated and factories were employing nine year olds to work 14 hours a day. Owen’s campaign must have sounded like insufferable intrusion to the early mill owners and their friends. Writers helped change public opinion: Oliver Twist was published in 1838. In 1848 the idea became law with one of the Factories Acts.

In the early 20th century, workers across the world campaigned for the eight hour day. In 1919, following agitation from anarchists, Spain become the first country in Europe to pass an eight hour day law. Some large employers, notably Zeiss in Germany, introduced an eight hour day at the turn of the century.

In the US, perhaps surprisingly for a country built on a combination of the Protestant work ethic and the toil of countless African slaves, Kellogg’s introduced a six hour day on 1 December 1930, the very year that Keynes wrote his essay arguing for the very same. The six hour day lasted till 1985. This vision became known as “liberation capitalism”. Today various lefty professors there, such as Arlie Russell Hochschild of the University of California at Berkeley, have argued that work has gotten out of hand. The State of Utah introduced a four day workweek in 2008. Three quarters of the workforce said they preferred the new arrangement, and the state reportedly saved over four million dollars through savings on overtime and absentee rates.

An eccentric idea? No. Last March the New York Times ran a story titled “Free Time is an American Dream Deferred” which argued that we should be exploring once again the social idea of “more leisure”. And the French socialist government introduced a 35 hour working week. Though it was abolished by Sarkozy, most companies stuck to it voluntarily as they found it was a success.

It’s also worth remembering that in David Cameron we have a prime minister who is not renowned for overwork. “If there was an Olympic gold medal for chillaxing,” said an unnamed source in his 2012 biography, “he would win it.” This ability to switch off, though, is not laziness. It is efficiency. Look at his predecessor, Gordon Brown, was of a middle class Scottish Presbyterian background and believed in hard work as the answer to every problem. Problem not fixed? More work required. The problem with this approach, as pointed out by Shirley Williams in a 2009 interview, is that there is a limit: “His response to everything is to work harder, but he’s already working as hard as it is possible for a human being to work.” Brown’s very appearance, with those bags under his eyes, was a sign that he needed a nap quite urgently.

There are health benefits to working less. In July of this year (2014) a leading British doctor advocated the four day working week. “When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress that people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, [work-related] mental health is clearly a major issue,” said Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health. “We should be moving towards a four-day week because the problem we have in the world of work is you’ve got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs. We’ve got a maldistribution of work. The lunch-hour has gone; people just have a sandwich at their desk and carry on working. “We need a four-day week so that people can enjoy their lives, have more time with their families, and maybe reduce high blood pressure because people might start exercising on that extra day.”

Lately even the great tycoons have joined in the chorus for a shorter working week. Google co-founder Larry Page recently declared in an interview: “The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” he said, before outlining his scheme for less work all round. Page went on to say that people need to be more idle.

“Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you add slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.”

He said he had discussed the issue with none other than Richard Branson.

The Mexican telephone company billionaire Carlos Slim went one further and argued for the three day week. Speaking at a recent conference in Paraguay, Slim, often identified as one of the two richest men in the world, argued that this would provide more time for the important stuff of life – being idle. “We would have more time to relax, for quality of life,” he said.

We have sixteen years left to fulfil Keynes’s prophecy. The great increases in efficiency that capitalism has achieved over the last two hundred years, and which the economists boast about, should lead not simply to greater profits for shareholders and those at the top, but to an aristocratic style of life for the 99%.


At the Idler we are starting a campaign for the four day workweek. Email us at [email protected] if you would like support this project. Use the subject line: libertas.