WHAT would you do with six or eight extra hours a week - the equivalent of a full working day?
That's the potentially liberating question facing French workers in the wake of a radical government proposal to shorten the workweek. Instead of the current five-day, 39-hour week, employees would work a four-day, 33-hour week. Officials hope the reduced hours will create new job openings, helping to lower France's 11.8 percent unemployment rate.
In a similar move, Volkswagen announced last week that in January it will cut the workweek in its German factories by 20 percent, putting employees on a four-day, 29-hour week. Without such a drastic measure, the automaker warned, it would be forced to cut 30,000 jobs.
At first glance, these changes appear to offer advantages for both sides, allowing employees more time with their families and helping employers reduce absenteeism and increase productivity. What worker, confined to a desk or an assembly line for eight hours a day, five days a week, has not dreamed of devoting less time to the job and more time to children, hobbies, sports, and travel?
Yet instead of freedom, the moves are generating fear. Fewer hours mean fewer francs or marks in a paycheck. Workers in France will see their wages shrink by 5 percent. Those at Volkswagen will lose 10 percent of their salaries.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Twenty years ago, when futurists painted rosy scenarios of shorter workweeks to come, their unstated assumption was that salaries would stay at or near the same level. A whole mini-industry sprang up to help Americans deal with the free time they would supposedly have. Universities developed leisure studies programs. Experts spoke loftily of a ``philosophy of leisure,'' and ``creative'' became the adjective of choice to describe everything from retirement to vacations. Even fashion designers got into the act with the leisure suit, surely one of the least appealing creations ever to come from Seventh Avenue drawing boards.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the golf course and the craft studio. Before these utopian fantasies quite became a reality, the pace of life speeded up rather than slowed down. Workers became more overextended than ever. The leisure suit gave way to the power suit. Gradually the leisure experts themselves faded away, to be replaced by another kind of time-management expert, the work and family coordinators hired by big corporations to arrange flextime and child care for working parents desperate for less frenetic schedules.
It is too early to tell whether the French and German proposals for a shortened workweek represent a serious model for change or simply a temporary measure to help companies ride out a prolonged recession. But taken together with the growing ranks of temporary and contract workers - the contingent work force - the European plans are creating visions of an increasingly part-time labor force, the result of corporate whittling and advanced technology such as computers and robots. The combination adds up to nothing less than a potentially revolutionary rearrangement of lives and of attitudes toward work and nonwork.
Despite the real and imagined advantages these shorter work schedules would bring, serious questions remain: Is there a danger that employers will exploit existing workers by cutting hours but not adding the new jobs that are supposed to be part of the deal? And might they also start whittling away at benefits?
If those on shortened work schedules are forced to moonlight to make up for lost income, any hopes that this will bring families together will quickly disappear. Two jobs and two bosses add up to more stress, not less. And if the European trend spreads to the United States, as some unions hope, it will test the sincerity of the growing numbers of American employees who say they would trade money for more time with families.
Yet if slightly reduced paychecks prove to be an acceptable tradeoff for more time, consider the potential benefits: Children could spend fewer hours at day-care centers. Parents could become more involved at their children's schools. Others could volunteer their services to people and groups needing help.
Is there a happy medium between work and leisure? Workaholics are rightly frowned upon. Yet the argument that leisure is automatically civilizing can certainly be pushed too far. ``All intellectual improvement arises from leisure,'' Samuel Johnson pontificated. But this man who rather prided himself on his laziness doubtless improved his intellect by working like a slave on his dictionary.
Stressed on the job, bored or guilt-ridden on vacation, the American zigzags through life, hoping for more. At best, the four-day week could serve as one more experiment in the quest for a perfect balance.