Is The Four-Day Working Week Progressive?

Andrew Spence
4 min readFeb 9, 2022

There is a movement to move from the five-day working week to four.

‘Less Work, Same Pay’ anyone?

But before we jump in too quickly to the three-day weekend. This article excerpt (you can read the full article here) asks is it really progressive for workers to rely on handouts from management?

A clue might be in the origin of five-day week…

Ever wondered why you have that Zoom Update Meeting exactly every seven days?

4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, it was believed that there were seven planets in the Solar System. The reason we have 10 am Monday Zoom Project Meetings every seventh day is not for a particular business reason — it’s because of the Babylonians.

In England in the 1800s, it was common to work 6 days a week, for 12 hours a day. Sunday was meant to be a day to rest. But some workers partied too hard and couldn’t face going to the factory on Monday morning (ever had this feeling?). Eventually, the factory owners negotiated a half-day on Saturday in exchange for turning up on time on Monday morning.

So somewhere between sky-gazing in ancient Mesopotamia to ‘Hangover Mondays’ in Manchester, we ended up with the five-day working week.

Since the 1800s, the average working hours have steeply declined.

As you can see from the chart below, full-time work is 20 or even 30 hours less every week than in the 19th century.

One of the think-tanks promoting the four-day week, Autonomy, highlight the importance of union-led improvements to working conditions in the industrialised era. There has been undeniable progress.

In this context, moving to a four-day week is an improvement on the original bobbins six-day week of the sweatshops of 19th Century Manchester.

We might well see the four-day week becoming a popular policy in future general elections. It is more likely to be considered in the public sector, and there would be complex public pensions and taxation implications to work through.

Wage increases to help families pay for rising inflation will be welcome.

But how will this be paid for? Historically wage increases come from increasing shop prices, reduce company profits, or greater productivity.

This proposition might be popular with workers, but is it a progressive policy?

Solutions that have worked in the industrial-age aren’t necessarily going to work in less unionised service economies such as the UK.

The traditional job has given us incredible societal benefits in the past, but can’t be relied on in the future.

As work unbundles, it will reorganize into interesting new forms, some completely new and some reinventing the old.

Technology developments are enabling platform cooperatives and digital guilds, decentralised autonomous organisations DAOs. The tokenisation of assets is allowing individuals to own and monetise their IP, credentials and contributions. This should give both fans of Adam Smith and Friedrich Engels some food for thought.

Our Workforce has changed since the 1800s.

  • We can now access quality 24x7 streaming entertainment.
  • We are in a loneliness epidemic.
  • We don’t need to endure a painful job to pay for expensive status symbols to find a mate.
  • We can earn and learn in hundreds of ways.
  • Workers want more flexibility, autonomy, and equity.
  • We are in an era where we have had to helicopter money to hundreds of millions to pay for essential living costs.
  • Workers have re-priced their leisure time and expectations from work. For many the story is The Great Flourishing, not The Great Resignation which is an employer-centric term.

Society needs solutions to improve financial security and the safety net.

Allowing people to move more confidently and securely between work contracts (🙋‍♀️Denmark) is part of the conversation. The discussion around Universal Basic Income will gradually include an extension of universal basic services.

Redistribution is needed in the 21st Century, but needs to be reframed to the context of the Digital Covid age, not the textile factories of the 19th Century.

Any challenge to the sanctity of Job will not get support from the unions (who are funded by unionised jobs) and traditional left parties (funded by the unions).

One hypothesis on the rise of populist politics is because of the lack of coherent vision by the left on the ‘post-job’ economy.

Policy-makers need to bypass 20th-century cures for 21st-century challenges and develop modern solutions.

Telling workers they should ‘work Four Days a Week because it is good for you’, is straight out of the ‘Command and Control Manual’ of 1800s factories.

https://twitter.com/AndySpence/status/1125407864292556800

Workers want more autonomy, not an employer-imposed gift from management.

Read more about Why the Four-Day Week is Not the Answer in a 6 minute article, on Workforce Futurist, and be sure to subscribe for updates every couple of weeks.

  • Bobbins to the Six-Day Working Week
  • The Four Day Week Movement
  • If the Four-Day Week is the Organisational Answer, then What is the Question?
  • Does The Workforce Want a Four Day Week?
  • Some Work Design Prompts
  • Designing Work for the 21st Century

Andrew Spence is an independent Workforce Strategist.

You can connect with him on Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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Andrew Spence

Passionate about making work better. Writes Workforce Futurist Newsletter.