We Need to Go Further than a Four-Day Work Week
by Carys Jones
The Four-Day Work Week sounds fantastic on paper – because it is! In principle, the four-day work week asks its employees to become more efficient in their daily working life in order to get the same amount of work done in a compressed time frame. This results in a working week of 4 days rather than 5. Importantly, they are paid the same amount but in exchange for their streamlined productivity, they are given one day off from work a week.
As Andrew Barnes explains, we as workers are not as productive as we like to think and having a day off each week to live outside the realm of work helps us to be more resourceful with our time at work. For Barnes, the effects of this policy were far better than anticipated. He found that his employees were indeed more productive, they had greater loyalty to the company, and the policy helped create a better team environment within the workplace. All positive things from a business perspective.
What was not anticipated was the significant impact the policy had on his employees—not as workers, but as people. They reported feeling generally happier, less stressed, better able to cope with their daily activities, and more able to do the things that were important to them: e.g. spending time with family. These all seem to be positive signs of a happy, healthy, well-rounded population. If we, for a moment, imagine that our government is motivated only by the wellbeing of its people (and not trying to shape us into a hyper-productive, GDP growing workforce), then from these results it is easy to conclude that the four-day work week should be implemented on a larger scale.
However, even if this were the case, I do not believe that just introducing a four-day work week is sufficient to bring about a more utopian society. Essentially what the four-day work week buys us is more free time, and it is what we do with that free time that concerns me. As it stands, our population is overworked, under-paid, and has a huge inequality problem.
Because of this stressful working atmosphere, we have been conditioned to spend our free time doing activities that help us decompress. This means activities – such as going on our phones or watching TV – that do not engage us physically or mentally, and thus do not allow us to rest and relax. Of course, that is not an insult to either activity! Social media can be used for heated intellectual debates, and TV and film can be artistic powerhouses; but nonetheless, they are not activities that actively engage us in the world around us.
As David Frayne wrote in his book The Refusal of Work (2015):
“It is not that these are low [unimpactful] activities, but that the worker has been deprived of the time and energy to choose otherwise.”
From a paternalistic point of view, if our government wants happy, well-rounded citizens then it should be encouraging us to engage with education, art, and culture . . . . Yet, as Frayne observes, “there is less and less time for those autonomous activities whose aim is simply to serve the criteria of the good, the true and the beautiful, as defined by each person.” Circumstances have made it so all three things are not universally accessible, and because of this I worry that a four-day work week will simply not achieve its idealistic aim.
The problem of accessibility involves three components. Firstly, people don’t have time to engage with these activities; secondly, people cannot afford these activities; and thirdly, a decade of austerity has greatly diminished the number of public projects that were previously accessible. A four-day work week should solve the first issue of time. However, one must be aware that labour outside work (e.g. cooking, cleaning, and childcare) is still a burden primarily laid upon women. Steps should be taken to address this gender inequality so each person benefits fairly from a four-day work week.
As for the second issue of time, having more free time does not equate to having more money, and thus many activities remain behind a paywall. These costs can be upfront, such as paying for materials to try a new art form (from personal experience, it turns out jewellery making is an eye-wateringly expensive hobby); or they can be hidden in the cost of travel. It’s fantastic that you could use your day off to go and visit one of London’s various free museums ; and yet when one considers the cost of train travel, and other expenses such as lunch, suddenly for some it is no longer an option. Cultural experiences can quite quickly seem out of bounds. Similarly, the cost of pursuing further education is another barrier in our ability to access fundamental human experiences. There is clearly a desire to learn, as seen by the popularity of sites such as Duolingo and Skillshare, and yet the inflated price of higher education has once again made it impossible for some to access academic learning.
Lastly, there used to be many public projects that were free to experience, such as youth clubs, art galleries, and cultural centres, many of which no longer have the funding to continue. It is all well and good giving us free time, but if our government does not address this inequality in opportunities it will not lead to the idealistic vision of the healthy, happy, flourishing society we want.
So, what can be done? I propose that on top of a four-day work week, the government should increase its funding to public arts projects and increase its capacity for higher education grants. This current pandemic has already demonstrated ways in which arts and culture can be made accessible – for instance, museums have been holding virtual tours of their exhibitions, and the National Theatre have been putting up their performances for free on Youtube. This alone has increased accessibility to those who cannot usually experience such things. As many of the ways to increase accessibility relies on the internet, it is also imperative that the government implement free nationwide broadband, as seen in the Labour party manifesto in 2019.
Humans are creative beings, and this quarantine period has aptly demonstrated our desire to try new things (I am looking at you, empty baking shelves in the supermarkets). In order for our society to truly be well-rounded and happy, we must look beyond the glamour of the four-day work week and focus on creating a community in which we can creatively and academically thrive without the barriers of inequality.
About the Author
Carys Jones is a Master's student at Kings College London, having graduated from the University of Kent in 2020. Academic interests include environmental ethics and perspectives on gender, class, and race.