Promises of a shorter workweek: Could it be a win-win?

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters/File
Employees of CCP Games work in Reykjavík in 2013. In Iceland, research begun in 2015 on a shorter workweek at the same pay resulted in more job satisfaction with no loss of productivity.

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The idea of a workweek shorter than 40 hours is neither new nor radical. Economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about the 15-hour week in 1930. Now, as legions of Americans actively search for new jobs as part of a “Great Reassessment,” expectations seem to be shifting.

Within the Western tradition, work has rarely been understood as an end unto itself, but rather as a means for human liberation, says historian Benjamin Hunnicutt. Freedom is “not just political, not just economic, but human freedom, where we’re able to do more of those things that are valuable in and of themselves.”

Why We Wrote This

As Americans have been quitting jobs at a record-setting pace, we take a look at some of the research and thinking behind the idea that a shorter workweek could benefit employees without losses in productivity.

While reducing work time may be trickier for hourly earners and people in industries where there isn’t as much room for productivity gains, experts say gradually reducing the workweek could contribute to an economy where growth and productivity take a subordinate role to values like balance and sustainability.

Ultimately, as Keynes wrote, the question may be the shape progress takes once material needs are met. “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom.”

The 40-hour workweek has long been the standard, but a growing chorus is calling for change.

Scotland announced a trial four-day workweek in September, following Spain this past spring. Experiments in Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Japan have added momentum to the debate. Legislation for a 32-hour week was introduced in the U.S. Congress in August, though the bill has made little headway.

Arguments for a shorter workweek range from a healthier workforce and more time for family, community, and creativity to gender equality and a reduced carbon footprint.

Why We Wrote This

As Americans have been quitting jobs at a record-setting pace, we take a look at some of the research and thinking behind the idea that a shorter workweek could benefit employees without losses in productivity.

At a time when record-breaking numbers of Americans are quitting jobs – 4.3 million in August alone – the push to shorten hours reflects a mounting desire for a more fulfilling work model. Experts say the idea is neither new nor radical.

What is driving this movement? 

Within the Western tradition, work has rarely been understood as an end unto itself, but rather as a means for human liberation, says historian Benjamin Hunnicutt.

“‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ – the pursuit of happiness has behind it that concept of a life beyond necessity,” says Professor Hunnicutt about what he calls the forgotten American dream of “higher progress.”

“Freedom, not just political, not just economic, but human freedom, where we’re able to do more of those things that are valuable in and of themselves.”

In the West, labor movements and technological progress cut average hours in half between the mid-1800s and World War II. Since then, the expansion of free time has slowed, despite John Maynard Keynes’ idea of a 15-hour week in 1930 and Richard Nixon’s four-day week prediction in 1956.

As religion declined in societal importance, work became for many a source of meaning, identity, and community. But now, the pandemic has opened the door to new conversations about work's role in life. As legions of Americans actively search for new jobs as part of a “Great Reassessment,” expectations seem to be shifting.

“The broader issue is a change in aspirations,” says Professor Hunnicutt. “There may be a change in values that implies a reevaluation of free time, of leisure, and a new understanding of how work-life balance could be maintained, with more and more of life focused outside of work.”

What have we learned so far?

Andrew Barnes tested a four-day workweek at his New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, after reading that cognitive productivity is limited to a few hours a day. Productivity increased, sick days fell by half, and employees reported greater balance and satisfaction.

“We are now in the information age ... , where thinking about a problem is part and parcel of the work,” says Mr. Barnes, noting that the five-day week was designed for repetitive manufacturing work. “What we need today is empathy, creativity, time to engage with all of the noise. What we’re actually doing here is we are giving people more time to decompress, and then those creative juices are enhanced and improved.”

He co-founded 4 Day Week Global in 2018 to help other companies – and now countries – reduce hours without cutting pay. New York-based Kickstarter announced it will join the initiative come 2022.

Most companies that have followed the model have seen productivity grow between 20% and 50%, says Mr. Barnes.

It remains to be seen if a shift toward shorter hours will pay for itself in higher productivity across the board; and not all trials have been adopted. In Sweden, a six-hour day experiment among nurses from 2015 to 2016 was deemed too expensive to continue, although it created jobs, lowered sick pay, and relieved stress.

For many, the advantages are worth it. Katie Sung negotiated a three-day week at her company in Boston after her first son was born. She earns 60% of a full salary but would “celebrate” a fully paid shorter week.

“You can give 110% during the hours you’re focused on work and 110% to your family or the other activities that are important to you,” she says. “Even if there is a trade-off, if productivity dips a bit, employees are healthier overall as humans. And that is ultimately good for your business, hopefully.”

Where is the idea going? 

Jumping to four days is trickier in industries where there isn’t as much room for productivity gains, says Anthony Veal from the University of Technology Sydney Business School. And the transition may prove challenging for hourly wage and gig workers.

Nevertheless, some experts say gradually reducing the workweek could contribute to an economy where growth and productivity take a subordinate role to values like balance and sustainability.

“People may become less attached to carbon-intensive consumption and more attached to relationships, pastimes, and places that absorb less money and more time,” write the authors of an oft-cited 2010 New Economics Foundation study recommending a 21-hour workweek.

Ultimately, as Keynes wrote in 1930, the more difficult question may be the shape progress takes once material needs are met.

“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom.”

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