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 have worked less, enjoyed more leisure and let our machines take on more of the hard graft. Tragically, what actually happened is that once the age of full employment, high productivity and high wages was ended by the neoliberal consensus of the early 1980s, the dream of an even shorter working week became exactly that. The report notes bluntly that “the British economy has stopped working in a way which supports a fall in working hours”.
But the “second machine age” is now upon us, and the question of working time is quite rightly being raised once again. With driverless technology breathing down transport workers’ necks, software bots replacing the admin work of white-collar staff and advanced AI set to impact many other sectors, there is wide acknowledgement that nothing short of a radical industrial strategy is required.
Without targeted government intervention aimed at managing this transition, we could see an even more polarised society, between those who reap the rewards from innovation – the platform tech giants, the rentiers and the highly skilled – and those who have been deskilled, their wages depressed and their jobs intensified. On one side, Jeff Bezos – the first man to have a 12-figure fortune – and on the other, an Amazon warehouse worker.
Robert Skidelsky’s report ‘advocates a return to a high-investment economy with strong trade unions at the fore’. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer
In other words, automation will not produce more free time for ordinary workers unless adequate policy is in place to ensure it. The past century has shown us that workplace technologies have often been introduced by employers as a way of simply maximising productivity without sharing the surplus time and/or profits with employees. This trend will continue unless a practical and enforced link between automation and free time is constructed.
Skidelsky’s report makes gestures in this direction, advocating investment in automation technology in the public sector with the aim of reducing working weeks gradually. The sights aren’t set particularly high however, with a target of a 35-hour week over a 10-year period being proposed. Perhaps most strikingly, the report argues for a Jobs Guarantee Programme whereby the state would be an “employer of last resort”. These jobs would pay no less than the national living wage and would constitute an attempt to exert upward pressure on pay. It should be pointed out that many questions hang over such a job guarantee, not least around the practical rollout of such a measure. The Skidelsky report establishes that reducing working time should be an aim for an incoming Labour government. In this sense it is an important moment in the discussion. However, much more radical reforms are needed beyond job guarantees and shaving a couple of hours off our working weeks.
In Autonomy’s own report on this issue, we proposed policies that would go a long way to achieving an actual four-day week within a decade. The creation of an organisation to integrate and co-manage automation technologies across the whole economy, a reduced working time directive, the creation of a Citizen’s Dividend (or basic income) and mechanisms by which workers could determine how technology was implemented in the workplace were all part of our proposals.
If we really want to tackle our high burnout, low-wage economy, we require bold solutions and a robust government strategy; Skidelsky’s review is an important contribution to the growing conversation, but we need to think bigger if we are to get the free time that a four-day week promises.
• Will Stronge is co-director of the thinktank Autonomy