Gambia’s four day week

Last week the Gambian president declared a four day week for all public sector workers. “This new arrangement will allow Gambians to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture – going back to the land and grow what we eat and eat what we grow, for a healthy and wealthy nation” says the announcement.

The president goes by the official title of ‘His Excellency the President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Jammeh’, which tells you how seriously he should be taken, but the decision has prompted a new round of debate about the working week.

The normal working week is five 8-hour days. You could work four 10-hour days and have a three day weekend. That would be a proper break, long enough to do some volunteering, pursue a hobby or see more of your kids. It would be good for the ‘big society’.

Then again, you could just work four 8-hour days, and that would be even better. The cries of protest would go up from the captains of industry of course, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the actual amount of work wouldn’t drop very far. When Britain adopted the three day week in 1974, industrial output only fell by 6%. France’s famously reduced work week that began in 2000 didn’t reduce GDP per capita. Apparently if people work fewer days, they work harder on them.

Working longer hours doesn’t necessarily make you richer, as a quick comparison of working hours and GDP per capita will tell you. Greeks worked an average 2,032 hours a year in 2011, while Germans only worked 1,413.

Conrad Schmidt adds a further dimension. As we know, the efficiency of the economy has been steadily improving for decades. As technology improves, it takes fewer hours to do the same amount of work and earn the same amount of money. In theory, we could have used that efficiency to work less. Previous generations have assumed that we would, eventually creating a leisure society where people would barely need to work. Instead, we worked the same hours and chose more money instead. And then more money and then some more, even though we have no time to enjoy the things we have because we’re too busy working.

In short, there are good reasons to work less, and not just to make sure that civil servants get to Friday prayers.


  1. Back to Saint Monday!

    Your comparison between Germany and Greece doesn’t work given that Greece is not an advanced economy like Germany’s. Its work force isn’t so productive because it isn’t rich enough to employ the capital to enhance productivity. Look at that OECD chart and you’ll see that roughly the poorer economies have longer hours than the richer but it declines as they have gotten richer.

    Secondly the French 35 hour week didn’t increase employment which was its aim. Lump of Labour fallacy exhibit A. The French economy is so restrictive about sacking people that its industries use what labour they have very efficiently to save themselves from hiring additional staff who they can’t get rid of in slow downs. High structural unemployment is the result.

    If we all worked less the result isn’t more jobs so improving productivity, if not linked to an expanding economy, means greater unemployment. And that doesn’t make people happy.

      1. It was the stated aim of the French 35 hour working week, so it failed in its own terms. Important to grasp that.

        Do you have any data on increase in volunteering or social satisfaction in France as a result of the 35 hour week? I admit I don’t have any figures as to the social effect in France. Without that data we know it slowed growth, didn’t reduce unemployment but we don’t know the positive effects if any. All we know is that at the next opportunity the French so valued the 35 hour week they voted in a government pledged to effectively dismantle it.

        1. The effects of the French working week aren’t clear cut, but the English language debate on it is rather skewed towards the negative. There’s no shortage of scorn heaped on it from people predisposed to hate the idea. It’s certainly an experiment with mixed results, but it’s more worthwhile than you might think.

          For a start, bear in mind that it only really had four years to get going. There’s the global economic slowdown in the early 2000s that interrupts job creation. The left leaning coalition in the National Assembly had collapsed by 2002 and the reforms to weaken work time rules start pretty quickly once the right is back in control. The key moment for the 35 hour week is those first four years between 1997 and 2001, and it’s worth noting that unemployment falls from over 12.2% to 8.6% in that time.

          Before you cite the lump of labour fallacy again, the work week directive was accompanied by a whole bunch of other deliberate job creation policies and incentives, so it’s not entirely down to the shorter work week. But something worked – employment grew ten times faster in those four years than it did in the previous 20. The shorter work week didn’t create as many jobs as hoped – 350,000 against the promised 700,000. But it didn’t do nothing, and it certainly didn’t destroy the economy as so many predicted.

          As for other benefits, there was no rise in voluntary work, but 63% of women and 52% of men with children under 12 said they spent more time with their children. 59% of working people said the working week rules had improved their quality of life.

          And don’t be too hasty in saying the French voted for a government committed to dismantling it – they didn’t. The center-right government that took over from a split left in 2002 promised to keep the the 35 hour rules, and make them more accommodating for businesses. It’s still in place and the French recently voted for a president who wants to protect it.

          I’m not hailing the French model, I only cited it in passing as one example among many. But it is something we can learn from.

          For a fuller perspective, you’ll need to read economics in French, something I find rather difficult. I’ve got the facts above from Anders Hayden’s paper on it:

          Click to access ahayden.pdf

          1. One thing with economics is that is is rarely instant. At least the first two years of any government is basically dealing with the economic legacy of its predecessor (unless they do something incredibly stupid). So given that Jospin only came to power in 1997 two years of that strong growth can be attributed to the Balladur and Juppe administrations.

            They had made major reforms to make the labour market more flexible. Hayden’s article brushed aside those reforms but they were vital. The previous governments had relaxed regulations on part-time work, fixed-term contracts and temporary-work agencies. It had reduced social-security contributions for low-paid workers and eliminated contributions for home helps.It also introduced new tighter rules for claiming unemployment benefits to encourage more of the unemployed to find work. These were the kind of reforms whose effects have been working their way through the French economy at this time, at lowering French unemployment (though France could and still does need to far more to make hiring and firing staff more flexible).

            The 35 hour week didn’t come into start coming into force until 1999 so can you really attribute employment growth before then to it? Rather growth was strong before it, continued while it was being introduced and fell once it was fully introduced in 2001.

            I must say that the French 35 hour week was one of the better executed attempts at this with a strong emphasis on workers being flexible at their employers request.

            Yes the UMP didn’t repeal the 35 hour week, they basically gutted it by increasing allowed overtime and reducing the additional employers tax on overtime payments. It is still on the statue book but with over time allowances and the payroll tax changes, it is in effect back to 39 hours.

  2. In our tiny German carpentr we work four nine hour days then a four hour day on friday. A lot of other companies do the same, and it allows for a lot of clubs and charities to get manpower on Friday afternoon, which is why Friday is traditionally the time when lots of children go to clubs or activities.This keeps our village lively culturally and cohesive,

    1. A good idea. When I was little Wednesday was a shorter day at school, and I get the impression many adults worked a shorter day on wednesdays too.

  3. If I could afford to work less I would… sadly its only the well off who can reduce their hours and perhaps not have that second holiday… the rest of us don’t go on holiday and need to pay the mortgage. hey ho.

    1. That depends. I work part time – not because I’m loaded and can afford it, but because I’ve chosen to live more simply. My wife and I wanted to be around while our kids were little, so we’ve budgeted and planned a life based around that. We’ve chosen to live in a cheaper town, got a smaller house and we don’t take expensive overseas holidays. I work three days a week for a charity, Lou works freelance in radio. I suppose we’re financially quite poor, but I consider myself to be quite fabulously wealthy in everything that matters.

      1. I salute your simpler lifestyle :-). But in don’t think it always depends on lifestyle choices. We live in a 2 bed in the cheap bit of town, we don’t go on holiday and limit our social time spending because that’s what our finances allow for… And we both do a 40 hour week if we had zero social life, as in never has people round for dinner and didnt have our £10 love film or my £15 gym membership… I don’t think it would give us any less hours at work… And there are people a LOT poorer than us in our neighbourhood… Less hours simply isn’t an option for lots of people in our society.

      2. For over 20 years we lived frugally, spent next to nothing, and went without all the benefits taken by friends and family, in order to be able to supplement our small state pension a little. How will most ever be able to do this and work less? I know we are instructed not to worry about tomorrow, but it looks like most already have no option.

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