Debate: Should we have a four-day work week?

Kyle Lewis and Tim Worstall

June 6, 2022

Kyle Lewis, Co-Director and Senior Researcher at Autonomy, argues YES

The four-day week with no loss of pay is a win-win scenario for both workers and employers.

For workers, moving to a four-day week provides more time to be able to live happier and healthier lives. According to the UK Health and Safety executive, 18 million working days were lost in 2019/20 as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. With the UK working some of the longest full-time hours in Europe, it’s clear that a four-day week with no reduction in pay would allow for the additional time away from work to properly rest, recuperate and live more fulfilling lives.

A four-day week would also be beneficial for gender equality in the workplace. Reducing the amount we all collectively work would create the possibility for more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women, including childcare and housework.

For employers, the four-day week provides a working solution to retain and recruit the best talent. With the great resignation seeing no signs of receding, the four-day week provides employers with the ability to offer employees the flexibility and work/life balance they crave. In addition, numerous studies have shown the productivity gains that can be generated by reducing working hours. With the UK suffering weak productivity growth in the last ten years, a four-day week provides UK businesses the opportunity to be more efficient and competitive on the global stage.

While we must listen and customise shorter working week practices to fit all sectors, we must also acknowledge that many of the arguments put forward in opposition to the four-day week are the same as those championed by critics arguing against a five-day week at the start of the 20th century. The growing momentum behind the four-day week demonstrates both its desirability and feasibility for workers and employers alike.

Tim Worstall, Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, argues NO

That we should all work less as we become richer should be obvious – for that’s what people do, they take more of their wealth or income as leisure. This has been going on for some centuries now, ever since the first general rise in wealth during the industrial revolution. To think that this should then mean four-day weeks is an error, though. For it is to fail to understand what work is.

It isn’t only what we do for wages. Nor is it just what we’ve got to do for The Man. That sort of thinking produces the common error that the medieval villein worked fewer hours than we do, which is nonsense. The measures of those peasant lifestyles sadly only including the work done for the Lord, as rent on the land which was directly farmed, not on the Lord’s land. Nor do such calculations include caring for the animals, spinning the wool, weaving the homespun and on and on.

This is also the error when people look at Keynes’ ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, where he predicts that we’d all, by about now, be working only 15 hours a week. The mistake made by current observers being that Keynes was in fact right, we’re just not noting it.

Work is the hours that have to be spent doing what must be done. This includes all of the work that has to be done inside the household as well as out of it. The cleaning, the cooking, the making of clothes and so on. The real story of the past few centuries being how much that we have automated.

We are richer than those 90 years ago when Keynes wrote – we also work very much less, but it’s the housework that has gone. Which is why having some set change in the hours worked for pay, for The Man, is incorrect. Perhaps we’d like to slice those home work hours further instead of those out in the marketplace. Possibly even different people will have different tastes about the matter.

Which is why we shouldn’t have a societal norm nor expectation at all. The truly liberal society being, of course, the one that leaves people be and simply observes the outcome. We should no more impose three days not at work than we should four at work.


Written by Kyle Lewis and Tim Worstall

Kyle Lewis is Co-Director and Senior Researcher at Autonomy and Tim Worstall is Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute

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