John MacDonald, the Labour shadow chancellor, has been in discussions with the economist Lord Skidelsky about the possibility of reducing the ‘traditional’ working week from five to four. Though this is not official Labour Party policy, the campaign for a four-day week is receiving growing political and public support. At this autumn’s Trade Union Congress conference its General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, urged employers to cut employees’ hours.
At face value the arguments for a four-day week seem very plausible and sensible. Who would not want to work less to have more time to spend with family and friends? The rational for the current campaign is not just that it will give workers more leisure time but that it will make workers more productive. If we spend less time at work, we work smarter and this finding is reported in companies that have adopted the four-day week. The doctrine of less is more is the mantra of contemporary time-management gurus. Though rather than seeking the goal of four days maybe we could be more radical and aim for four hours.
There are though some obvious flaws in the productivity argument. It is self-evident that it cannot be applied universally as productivity cannot be measured equally for all workers. The irony of a four-day week is that it could potentially increase demand on workers who work in leisure, rather than ‘productive’ jobs. If we spend less time at work and have more time to go shopping, go to the leisure centre, visit museums and art galleries, socialize at the pub or coffee shop; demands on these services could increase. A lifeguard who works a four-day week is not going to be more ‘productive’ than one who works five days. If four-day weeks are not staggered but used to create long weekends, them the implications for the work/life ‘balance’ of workers in these service industries may deteriorate.
The mantra of enhancing productivity is not just restricted to the world of work, but to life outside of work as well. In the same way that we are urged not to waste time at work doing unproductive activities (chatting to colleagues, daydreaming, checking social media and of course reading blogs) we are encouraged to have full and fulfilling lives outside of work. It is a feature of self-help texts on time management that families are there for recreation and leisure. The urge to have more time to spend with family does not necessarily equate this time with the drudgery of domestic and caring responsibilities. Family is not always fun, as work is not always productive. Yet this time spent being unproductive or doing routine domestic chores is important.
I would be more convinced by campaigns for a four-day week if they could be inspired by Dame Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics and former Vice-President of the Bank of England. In her recent Annual Leverhulme Lecture: ‘Why Are We So Miserable When Things are Getting Better?’ Dame Shafik reflects on her own dogmatic adherence as an economist to the manta of efficiency. She suggests that ‘In some areas of policy, it may be best to tolerate a bit of inefficiency for the sake of political and social cohesion.’ If we recognise that devotion to the cult of hard work is making us miserable, then seeking the solution through strategies to enhance efficiency does not really get the point. Recognising that not all social benefits can be secured through economic rationality, as Dame Shafik suggests, has to be part of the argument.