Saturday 17 January 2015

The case for a four-day working week: Some preliminary thoughts

I have for a long time believed that people work too much. Ever since going to work for the first time around three years ago I have felt people work far too many hours, spending more time in the office than they need to and, often, wasting time on unproductive tasks. There is a culture in the office of never clocking off before time, and it is considered praiseworthy to be at one’s desk after hours.

It is frequently countered that such exertion is necessary – if we want to maintain our current high standard of living then we’re going to have to work for it. Doing anything less will cause our merciless competitors in other countries to close in like sharks, biting into our firms’ market share, and ultimately therefore our jobs and livelihoods.

I believe this line of reasoning is flawed, but explaining why and justifying my argument with evidence is somewhat complicated. For many months now I have been intending to put together some research on the subject and string my ideas into a coherent essay, but time is always against me. So for the time being I just want to sketch the shape of an argument.

Some evidence

My hypothesis begins with the idea that people’s productivity declines as they work longer hours. Firstly, they get more tired and worn out as the day goes on, which reduces their concentration and ability to perform tasks effectively. Secondly, tasks expand to fill the allotted time. This is particularly true of longer-term projects, where output per day is difficult to measure. But put simply, give people more time, and they will take more time.

Without having done much in the way of research there is only limited evidence I can give to back my assertion at this stage. But some simple figures give, I believe, fairly compelling preliminary support to my argument.

There was a good degree of snobbery expressed among ‘hard-working’ British people when the French a few years back set a maximum working week of 35 hours (the latest Eurostat data, from 2013, actually show full-time French workers average 40.7 hours). Compare this to the data for the UK, which show Britons in full-time work spend 42.8 hours per week working.

Then, if we compare GDP per capita we see that France produces $41,400 per head per year, while the UK produces $39,300. So we are working longer hours and producing less output!

That extra productivity is important. I want to stress that under my system, people would not cram more hours into their four days of work – they would simply cut the 7-8 hours they work on, say, Friday out of their working week. Poof. Gone. Everyone in the country is now averaging a 35-hour working week, and they have an extra day of holiday every week. 52 extra days off each year! But also, if everything else is equal, 20% less output.

To compensate for this slump in working hours, ideally people need to become more productive. According to more Eurostat data from 2013, French workers on average produce €45.6 of output per hour worked, while the British produce a mere €39.2 – about 14% less. Incidentally Norway tops the table with a whopping €69.6 per worker per hour – and Norwegians work less than the French or the British, at 39 hours per week. Intriguing, eh?

So there is some reason to think that workers who work less produce more. They certainly can produce more. Obviously there are a lot of variables that I am currently ignoring, but those are for future research to pin down.

The benefits

I don’t think it requires much imagination to see there are a number of benefits to people enjoying a three-day weekend every week. People with more free time are less stressed and have more time for leisure activities, be they sport, or art, or visiting museums, or spending time with their families. People will be happier and healthier and will have time for personal projects that can benefit society in less tangible ways than earning hard cash.

The only obvious objection is if we become drastically poorer as a result, but as I have spelled out above, I don’t think there is any obvious reason to believe this would be the case.

Economists in the audience may be crying out at this point that I’m ignoring the general equilibrium aspects of this problem – that is, I am taking the UK in isolation and ignoring the response of our competitors, the aforementioned sharks. At this stage, I have no response. It bears thinking about, certainly. France’s economy is by no means in a good state right now, but I don’t think that has much to do with its 35-hour working week, rather it is due to the combination of an inefficient economy shackled to a malfunctioning monetary union.

The point though is not really any of this. The point is we work because we want to be able to afford to enjoy ourselves. We work partly for a sense of worth, and in some cases we work to improve our world. But a lot of (most of?) our work is simply to improve our ability to do the things we actually want to do. So my point is we should spend more time doing the things we want to do, and less time wishing we were somewhere else as we trudge to work on a Monday morning.

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