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Why stop at the four-day workweek?

Companies are opting for shorter weeks. But without worker power, they’re just another employer perk.

Oshan Jarow is a Future Perfect fellow, where he focuses on economics, consciousness studies, and varieties of progress. Before joining Vox, he co-founded the Library of Economic Possibility, where he led policy research and digital media strategy.

A widely shared definition of “freedom” is tough to agree upon, but until the 1930s, a broad group of Americans, from poets and architects to business owners and conservative politicians, shared a vision that capitalism would deliver on the hazy idea in a very concrete way: more and more leisure time for all.

In their view, economic progress would carve a path from the grueling factories of the Industrial Revolution to a not-so-distant future largely free from work. As the British economist John Maynard Keynes put it in 1930, “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him.”

For many decades, things seemed to be on track. New technologies helped drive up productivity, while the labor movement helped steer that growth to shift the balance of life for ordinary citizens from employment to leisure. Americans began shifting from agriculture to manufacturing jobs, where the average working week dropped from over 70 hours in 1830 to roughly 40 hours in 1930. In 1933, a bill passed the Senate — with initial support from then-President Franklin Roosevelt — that would have created a 30-hour workweek. But following significant industry opposition, Roosevelt shifted toward focusing on 40-hour workweeks for all rather than shortening them. The aim of progress followed the same shift — away from gathering more leisure time and toward securing full-time employment.

Weekly working hours from 1870 to 2000 in the US. They declined until around 1940, after which they began flatlining. Our World in Data

Now, the lingering disruptions of the pandemic and rapid progress in AI and automation are helping to revive the dream that economic progress could lead to more leisure time. Nowhere is that clearer than in the rising interest in four-day workweeks. Results from international trials of the idea across wealthy countries are beginning to roll in. The word is good — employees are happier, and employers seem to exhibit the same amount of productivity they do with five-day weeks.

Four-day weeks would make for an excellent perk wherever they fit — like free lunches at the office, but way better. I hope they spread. That said, convincing some companies to offer four-day weeks falls well short of designing an economy that translates economic growth into the option of more leisure time for all. Leisure isn’t just an extra vacation day here or there. As the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, it’s the basis of culture, a “condition of the soul,” a way of living where people aren’t forced to sacrifice most of their waking lives for a paycheck.

The deeper issue is that convincing companies to adopt four-day weeks does little to change the balance of power between workers and employers. Left unchanged, the negotiation over how many hours should constitute “full-time” would continue being held in the boardroom, where workers and their interests are largely without representation, and given today’s hampered labor movement, without much influence. That would significantly reduce the scope of our potential leisure time by leaving employers — rather than workers or an empowered labor movement — in virtually sole control of deciding when economic growth translates to more time off.

In the glory days of the American labor movement, when unions were strong and wages rose alongside productivity, “organized workers could cash that out as more free time,” said Aaron Benanav, a professor of sociology at Syracuse University and author of Automation and the Future of Work.

“But for decades, workers haven’t even been getting that choice because, for the most part, productivity growth has ended up as higher profits and more inequality,” he said. “It takes a political movement to cash that out in terms of a reduced workweek.”

A renewed politics of leisure time should return that choice to workers by focusing on the old program of raising labor’s bargaining power. Familiar ideas like unions and sectoral bargaining are good starting places. But beyond institutions that give workers an organized voice, other avenues that provide unconditional resources to all citizens — like guaranteed income, baby bonds, or universal health care — can also help give workers more of a say in what they do with their time by making their basic needs less dependent on having a paycheck.

Without these pieces, the working week, and through it, the shape of most Americans’ lives, will continue being set by the clock of business. But the old ideal of leisure, what the poet Walt Whitman called both “higher progress” and “the task of America,” held that human potential goes far beyond the scope of what’s good for business. “The world of work,” Pieper cautioned, “threatens to become our only world … grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.” Leisure expands the world beyond work, adding a richness and depth that exceeds the logic of business.

Alone, four-day weeks will probably not bring on a leisurely transformation of the soul toward Whitman’s vistas of higher progress. But combined with empowered workers who wield more of a say in the shape of their lives, we could recover the sense that economic progress expands the horizons of human life, even if that means leaving economic logic behind.

Four-day workweek experiments bring good news

Societies can approach a four-day workweek from two directions: above or below. From above, the government could lower the overtime-pay threshold of weekly hours — the limit at which employees are contracted to work without additional pay — from 40 to 32. The threat of extra pay creates enough incentive for most employers to set what counts as “full-time” at the overtime threshold. This is how the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law in 1938, codified the 40-hour workweek in 1940.

From below, individual companies can choose to offer shorter hours on their own. Before the 40-hour week was law, Henry Ford implemented one in his factories in the 1920s to prevent exhaustion among his assembly line workers and open up more time for consumption and travel, while still paying enough to help grow the middle class he needed to purchase his cars. It worked so well that it was eventually adopted across much of the economy, helping create the pressure that led to federal legislation.

It’s one thing to imagine shorter weeks working on an assembly line in 1920, where the work is so repetitive that it nearly automates itself by turning the humans carrying it out into robots. But today’s four-day experiments have seen success across a range of industries, from restaurants to healthcare to preschool education. Iceland experimented with four-day weeks across public sector jobs, including hospitals, preschools, and social service providers. Large companies like Microsoft and Unilever tried it at their Japan and New Zealand locations, respectively. And if companies can’t afford (or refuse) to pay the same amount for less work, Spain tried an approach where the government steps in to make up the difference in pay.

Across these experiments, the results tell a similar story: Paying people the same amount for less time leaves them feeling happier and healthier and often boosts business, too. “I used to be exhausted all the time,” Lise-Lotte Pettersson, an assistant nurse at a retirement home that dropped down to six-hour workdays for two years, told the Guardian. “But not now … I have much more energy for my work, and also for family life.”

One analysis made the case that reducing working hours could also help lower carbon emissions by cutting electricity use, commutes, and household consumption in the UK, a connection growing in popularity among advocates.

The world’s largest four-day experiment to date — a six-month trial with 61 participating companies and about 2,900 workers across the UK — wrapped up at the end of 2022 with another batch of extremely positive results. The average life satisfaction across all workers spiked from 6.69 to 7.56 on a scale from zero to 10. That’s nearly a 10 percent jump in overall life satisfaction, a pretty massive well-being gain. When asked about the amount of time they had to “do the things they like doing,” employee satisfaction went up over two points, or more than 20 percent.

A table visualizing the world’s largest four-day workweek experiment demonstrates a marked increase in life satisfaction and employee retention and decreases in stress and burnout.

Companies did well, too. Resignations fell by 57 percent compared to the same period the year before. Employers rated the experiment an 8.3 out of 10. Months after the trial ended, 56 of 61 participating companies still had the four-day week in place, 18 of which had already made it a permanent change.

Even if the results from trials are positive on balance, there are already a few potential issues in view. First, especially if employers are dictating the terms, four-day weeks could simply come to mean cramming the same amount of work time into fewer calendar days, like working four 10-hour days. That might suit some people’s preferences. But for others, it’s a road to more burnout, not less.

To keep the idea of four-day weeks from pointing toward burnout, 4 Day Week Global, an organization behind many of the pilot experiments, advocates for the 100-80-100 model: 100 percent of the pay for 80 percent of the time, with 100 percent of the productivity.

But keeping productivity up despite less time creates a need to cut fluff out of the workday. That can mean unnecessary meetings. It can also mean those leisurely moments of communion with a colleague, spending an extra five minutes chatting while the tea steeps, or roaming the halls just to see what folks are up to. Some leisure at the workplace can be good, too.

More broadly, a review of the academic literature on four-day weeks found that while, yes, the balance of results looks good, negatives include an intensification of both employee surveillance and performance measures, while some employees’ positive reactions may fade over time. If shorter weeks drive employers to squeeze as much productivity as they can out of the remaining time their employees are on the clock, and technologies for employee surveillance continue their Orwellian development, more leisure time could paradoxically come at the cost of less freedom at work.

It’s incredibly convenient, then, that there’s a solution that could bring today’s four-day efforts back in line with the older, grander vision for a more emancipatory politics of leisure time, while also guarding against the downsides we’re seeing today: a focus on significantly raising workers’ bargaining power.

A politics of leisure time needs power, not perks

To design an economy that both sustains and spreads the option of more free time to all, we’ll need a political movement that gathers power. But for the moment, four-day weeks are more of a perk. The focus on pro-business merits like stable productivity levels and lower employee turnover makes the power dynamics clear: Even if workers want more leisure, unless their bosses sign off, they can’t have it.

A black-and-white photograph depicts a line of marching protesters holding signs. One sign reads: We want a six-day week. Another reads: We are asking a 48 hour week.
Workers from the De Vries dairy plant in Norwalk, Ohio, picket for shorter hours and more pay in 1937.

“That framing was really important for getting employers to sign on,” said Benanav. “My sense from talking to the researchers is that it was a very strategic way of presenting things to get the pilots off the ground.”

When leisure time was understood as the measure of freedom through the early 20th century, it wasn’t primarily because more leisure time would be good for business. It was that human life could be about more than business. The struggle for subsistence, the “economic problem” as Keynes called it, is not the “permanent problem of the human race.” Selling the four-day week as a productivity boon belies the point: As it was historically understood by many, the point of raising productivity was to expand human leisure, not the other way around. Justifying leisure in terms of productivity is like justifying a vacation in terms of how much work you could get done once you’re back and well-rested.

But designing a world where economic logic doesn’t always have the final say over human life means workers need the power to make different choices or demand different structures of work, even — or especially — when businesses aren’t on board.

A politics of leisure led by boosting worker power is also far more flexible. Plenty of Americans really do love their jobs and would not want to work any less than they do. Particularly in the US, work can be an anchor of identity and a real source of meaning, community, and fulfillment. If Americans choose to work 40-hour weeks on the grounds of freedom rather than necessity — because they love the work and not because they can’t otherwise afford decent lives — then why not?

But plenty of Americans have no choice but to labor in full-time jobs that suffocate rather than nourish their identities. Here, access to more leisure can help people forge meaningful lives through activities outside the labor market.

“People talk about the decay of civil society,” said Michael Konczal, director of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank. “Control over time is such an essential part of whether or not you’re able to participate in your community. If you have very low control over your time, that really does cut against civil society.” Religious affiliation, for example, has been on the decline. Maybe more leisure time could afford people the space to build new institutions that help fill the gap and reclaim the prosocial effects that noneconomic activities can generate.

None of this works, though, if we stray from the 100-80-100 model and more leisure means less pay. That’s why a focus on worker power is so important — it can help spread the option of leisure to waged workers outside of the white-collar industries where employers might be willing to offer four-day weeks out of self-interest.

But the future of worker power in the US is deeply unclear. The last 50 or so years have seen one of the largest declines in worker power in American history. Wages stagnated while productivity and inequality rose. Union coverage declined to historic lows, where it remains today. The reclassification of some workers as independent contractors means a whole new group now misses out on traditional benefits like health care and sick days.

And yet, there are reasons for cautious optimism beginning to enter the frame. Wage growth is now outpacing inflation at the low end of the income distribution. The White House established a task force on worker power, signaling the much-needed return of federal support. Unemployment has remained remarkably low, leaving a tight labor market that can drive up wages. Workers have been flexing their muscles in a summer of strikes.

A crowd of people hold protest signs and raise their hands in the air.
SAG-AFTRA union members walk a picket line outside Paramount Studios on day two of the Hollywood actors’ strike on July 14th, 2023.
David McNew

Like the four-day week, this is all good news. Also like the four-day week, it falls short of what may be required to put more worker control over their time on the bargaining table. To gain that sort of leverage, workers will likely need a lot more power, not just a tight labor market and slightly higher wages. So how do we get from here to there?

Bargaining for leisure

Empowering workers to bargain for more leisure means giving them enough leverage to make demands while conveying a real threat of walking away from the job if their demands aren’t met. Empty threats won’t change the economy, but credible ones could.

While it’s a long road to that kind of worker power, it’s pretty well mapped out. “The formula has more or less been there for a century,” said Konczal. First, make sure everyone in the economy has money to buy stuff. That drives up profits, leads to more hiring, lowers unemployment, and ultimately gives labor more leverage since employers are competing for fewer available workers. Second, let workers unionize and collectively bargain rather than firing them for it.

The road, though, doesn’t end there. “One thing you need,” said Benanav, “is something that was never really achieved in the US: actual sectoral bargaining. Not just collective bargaining at the firm level, but at the industry level.”

Sectoral bargaining means unions would negotiate standards that apply to all workers in an industry, not just those who work in unionized firms. To complement that greater representation, workers would also benefit from social programs like unconditional cash transfers, universal healthcare, or as the pandemic showed, stronger unemployment insurance. We already saw early tremors of the power such reforms can hold as part of the surprisingly generous US policy response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the boosted unemployment insurance. “A lot of that was giving people resources to just make their own decisions,” said Konczal.

Having enough resources to make one’s own decisions is a key point. One particularly loopy assumption in economic theory is that workers are free to choose the precise balance between labor and leisure that reflects their preferences and values. In practice, most workers cannot just tune down their work by one and a half hours if they’d prefer that much more leisure — employment hours aren’t that flexible, and doing away with that much pay is often untenable.

Critics will often deride programs that deliver unconditional benefits as “socialist,” but the irony is that such reforms can actually help shore up capitalism’s broken foundations. Market economies are based on the promotion of freedom through voluntary trade. But how voluntary is accepting an undesirable job when the alternative is eviction or food insecurity?

By providing a baseline of resources unconditionally — that is, to all citizens, whether or not they’re employed — people gain what the economist Albert Hirschman called an “exit option.” Not just the freedom to choose their flavor of misery, but the real possibility of saying no.

Putting a real leisure agenda on the table

There are other ways of promoting leisure time — more federal holidays, mandatory vacations, pumping up social security so people can actually retire. Some scholars believe that peasants of the late medieval period enjoyed more leisure time than today’s average American worker, largely because about half of the calendar year was occupied with festivals and celebrations.

A black-and-white photograph shows a line of men wearing suits and top hats standing beneath a large banner that reads: 8 hours labor / 8 hours recreation / 8 hours rest.
A labor organization in Australia celebrates the third anniversary of securing the eight-hour day for stonemason workers in 1858.
Hulton Archive/Stringer

But no leisure agenda is complete without significantly boosting worker power. This helps ensure not only the possibility of more leisure, but a more dynamic and adaptable economy that accommodates a variety of people with different values and different visions of what makes for a good life.

A useful way to orient the leisure agenda is to ask what it’s for. If the point is just to keep workers refreshed and happy enough to continue their productive contributions to economic growth, then maybe things are already on track. Results from the four-day experiments suggest it’s the kind of balm for workers that would sustain them as happier, better employees.

If the politics of leisure time is about raising the amount of control all people have over the kinds of time that fill their lives, then the present trajectory needs to angle toward power. Without more bargaining power, leisure will always have to justify itself in terms of productivity, placing a cap on how far the leisure agenda might go. With more power, leisure could break free from the hold of economic logic, expanding people’s freedom to lead a wider variety of lives.

The possibility of leisure is something that society — the collective action of all members — produces. But seizing it requires empowering those who would be its champions. And there are plenty. Anyone who endures the gnawing feeling that work is bending their life in service of a job they do not particularly enjoy is the potential beneficiary of a real leisure agenda.

The opportunity to spread the power of choosing more leisure is closer than ever before. Alongside the governments and businesses making decisions about the working week, we should equip workers with the tools to rein in the freedom of leisure, one of the oldest — and today, neglected — frontiers of progress.

“In terms of technological and economic conditions, we could do this,” said Benanav. “We have all the technical capacities. We just aren’t organized enough.”


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