Date posted: 01/12/2016 5 min read

Is it time for the four-day working week?

Keynes suggested that once humanity was unshackled from toil, we would begin to work less. But that hasn’t happened

In brief

  • Keynes suggested we are hardwired to strive to solve the economic problem, whether it exists or not
  • The social, environmental and health benefits a four day week would be numerous
  • A solution to inequality is to spread jobs and salaries more evenly through a four-day working week

By Tim Dean 

The case for a four-day working week is compelling. In a 1930 essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, John Maynard Keynes made the bold prediction that one hundred years hence, humanity would have solved what he termed the “economic problem.” He expected that by 2030 we would have been victorious in the “struggle for subsistence” and that the average standard of living would be four to eight times that of the common folk in 1930.

And he was right. In fact, Australia’s GDP in 2012 was roughly 26 times higher than in 1930 — almost exactly 4 per cent compound growth — although 1930 was admittedly a Depression year. However, wages represent a better proxy for individual standard of living. As Thomas Piketty has recently made us aware, wage growth has not followed capital growth, but it did increase roughly four-fold between 1930 and 2012. By 2030 it ought to have grown more, making Keynes rather prescient for an economist.

Naturally, Keynes thought, once humanity was unshackled from toil, we would begin to work less. History was his precedent. From the outset of the agricultural age, we laboured all day, every day, just to survive. Then, a few thousand years ago, we reached a transition point in our species’ history: we produced a surplus. We no longer had to bend our backs in toil day in, day out, just to put food on the table. This, in turn, precipitated the emergence of religious holidays, particularly the weekly day of rest. 

The prodigious boost in productivity and economic output delivered by the industrial revolution eventually led to further reductions in working hours. First, in the 19th century, was the push for an eight-hour working day, followed in the early 20th century by the five-day working week.

Keynes believed that as economic output continued to grow, and as improvements in technology made more jobs redundant, we would simply scale back our work and ramp up our leisure. He speculated that three-hour shifts, or a 15-hour week, might suffice to keep our enterprising nature satisfied, leaving the rest of our days for carefully cultivated leisure.

Born to work

And yet here we are. We have arguably solved Keynes’s “economic problem” in most developed nations. Material scarcity is hardly a concern; in fact, it has been a surplus of supply and deficit of demand, not the opposite, that has constituted most contemporary economic calamities. We enjoy material abundance undreamed of by the likes of Keynes and his peers. Yet we continue to work like our lives depended on it.

In fact, something rather strange happened in the 1980s. We bucked the trend of history and started working more. Right at the point when we were cementing our triumph over scarcity, we put our shoulder back to the grindstone rather than taking the day off.

Why? The seeds of an answer are to be found within Keynes’ essay. He suggested that it is hardwired into our very nature to be creative and productive beings, to strive to solve the economic problem, whether it exists or not. We’re born to work, as it were. 

However, paid employment need not be the only vehicle for satisfying this urge. Many of us pursue hobbies and other productive pastimes that from the outside look a lot like “work,” but which we find richly rewarding without any requirement for remuneration. So the question remains: why do we insist on the 9-to-5 grind, particularly if it supplants the unpaid hobbies that we’d rather be doing, and which we can probably afford to do?

Keynes suggested our biology has been shaped by evolution to drive us to work, but it seems that it’s not only biology at play. Our culture has also come to reinforce the value of work. From a young age, we are often prompted to think of work — specifically gainful employment — as being intrinsically good. Work is couched not just as a means to securing an income but as an end in itself.

Something rather strange happened in the 1980s. We bucked the trend of history and started working more. Right at the point when we were cementing our triumph over scarcity, we put our shoulder back to the grindstone rather than taking the day off.

Huge benefits

Our propensity to work hard is also driven by competition. While one might subsist with relative wealth on a modest income, if one seeks to advance in their field they must outperform their peers. Getting into the office early and leaving late is as much a signalling exercise of one’s commitment as it is a productive use of time. And to the degree that we see hard work as a virtue and idleness as a vice then we strive to be a “lifter” rather than a “leaner”. There’s also competition over certain finite goods that remain scarce no matter how high our productivity peaks. Housing is the prime example.

However, Keynes’s point still stands. Many of us work more than we need to. And it’s not making us any happier. Science backs this up, showing that households with an income in the top quintile are generally no happier than households with an annual gross income of $100,000. That’s households, not individuals.

While we might not quite be ready for three-hour shifts or a 15-hour week, it could well be time to consider a four-day working week. The social, environmental and health benefits of such a shift would be manifold. We would have more time to spend with our friends and family, which are known to be significant factors in boosting life satisfaction. We would have more time for hobbies and other creative pursuits, which would mean a richer cultural fabric for us all to enjoy. There would be less traffic congestion on the roads, less energy consumption and pollution. Both physical and mental health would improve as we have more time to recover from work.

Just consider the numbers: a four-day week means giving up 20 per cent of your income for a 50 per cent boost in leisure time. Then again, income might not even drop by that much. When companies such as Kellogg’s, or countries like France and Sweden, have dabbled with reduced working hours, output has often remained stable or even increased. This is particularly the case with office workers who, unlike factory workers, do not necessarily produce more just by sitting at their desks longer.

Inequality solution

The time may come when working reduced hours is not a choice but a necessity. Just as in Keynes’ time, technology is consuming jobs. However, unlike Keynes’ time, there is no guarantee that things like artificial intelligence or robotics will produce as many jobs as they destroy. Rising unemployment, even among white collar workers, could become a hallmark of the 21st century.

Then there are the problems of growing wealth and income inequality, and the cost they impose on government and society at large. One solution to inequality is to spread the available jobs — and salaries — more evenly through a four-day working week.

Naturally, not everyone will be able to work less. But for those who earn enough to live in comfort, a shorter working week could lead to a small cut in income but a large boost in life satisfaction. There are certainly cultural and political hurdles to overcome in order to make it happen, particularly the perception that work is intrinsically good, and that those who choose not to work are somehow lazy “leaners”.

The history of our species has been one of enterprise and ingenuity in overcoming the “struggle for subsistence”. As Keynes has pointed out, in this struggle we have been largely victorious. Don’t you think we might deserve a day off?

Tim Dean is a philosopher, editor and science writer.

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of Acuity magazine.