books

Book review: The Case for a Four Day Week

Another book in ‘the case for‘ series from Polity Books, this slim volume considers the arguments for a four day week. Written by three researchers from the New Economics Foundation, it’s a clear and concise introduction to the question of working hours.

“In this book we set out arguments for a four day week because we think the world would be a better place – and our lives would be much improved – if we spent less time working for money and had more time at our own disposal.”

There are many benefits to a shorter working week. The most obvious is that people having more time for themselves reduces stress and makes them happier. More time means more leisure, but also more time for care, for volunteering, for participative democracy and civic life. Provided it’s not compulsory, and people who want to work long hours can continue to do so if they wish, it’s a win for human freedom.

This used to be an easier case to make. Work hours during the industrial revolution were long and oppressive, and people tended to get one day off a week. It was a long struggle to wrestle time back from the bosses, to secure a two day weekend and gradually reduce working time. A lot of this was down to the unions and the power of collective bargaining. There was nothing inevitable about eight hours and five days.

More recently, the gains in many countries have levelled off. There doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus around shorter work hours as a form of progress. With some notable exceptions, such as France and its political wrangling over work time, it’s more or less disappeared from public debate.

This is a mistake, and it’s not just about time off. It’s about who is working and who is not. It is bizarre that millions of people are overworked and wish they could reduce their hours, while millions of others are unemployed or on zero hour contracts that don’t deliver enough work to live on. You’d think we’d be able to sort that out.

You’ve also got the equity issues of unpaid care, which is disproportionately done by women. This work has always been overlooked by capitalism, as described in Katrine Marcal’s wonderful book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Taking another look at work time could allow for a rebalancing of unpaid work across the sexes.

The Case for a Four Day Week looks at these issues in five chapters and 120 pages. It investigates some challenges, and looks at previous examples from around the world. Some places have pursued shorter hours through national campaigns. Others through unions, or business driven initiatives. There’s less about this latter category, which is a shame given the number of firms experimenting during Covid – but perhaps the book is just a few months early to be able to capture that learning.

There are some unusual ideas here that I’d not come across before in my fairly extensive reading around work time. (For example, a company in the Netherlands has an inter-generational work hours scheme that transfers hours from older to younger staff.) But for the most part it’s a solid introduction to the issue of time, and why it deserves more political attention.

More books…

Book review: The Case for Degrowth

Polity Books has created a series of short books called ‘the case for‘, each one presenting the arguments for a particular policy. I reviewed The Case for Universal Basic Services last year. Each one is a brief introduction to a political idea, written by relevant experts. In this one you get four authors for your […]

Book review: The case for Universal Basic Services, by Anna Coote and Andrew Percy

The idea of Universal Basic Services (UBS) was only coined in 2017, but has been taken up unusually quickly. It’s given a name to something people were already aspiring to. The Labour Party have taken it the furthest, adopting it as a pillar of their economic thinking at their conference this year. Though their manifesto […]

Book review: Time on our side

Time on our side: why we all need a shorter working week is a collection of essays compiled by the New Economics Foundation as part of their 21 hours campaign. The theme is work time, and it makes a case for a shorter working week: “Reducing hours of paid work … would loosen the bolts […]

7 comments

    1. No actually, and you need a new knee-jerk reaction to the topic of work time. Having come on to grumble about communists last time, and lump of labour this time, you’re beginning to sound like you haven’t heard a new idea since 1967.

  1. Jeremy, did you ever get around to reading “Towards Oikos” – a shorter working week was one of the ideas I adapted from Rutger Bregman.

  2. Keep making the same mistakes I’ll keep pointing them out. Just putting them in today’s fashionable lingo doesn’t make them any more correct.

    1. A better distribution of work doesn’t require a fixed amount of labour, and nobody is arguing that there is one. All you’re doing is signalling that you’ve read – let me guess – Tim Worstall?

      1. ‘No one is arguing X’ is always a foolish argument given the number of people who post on this stuff I could find someone on your side who is saying X pretty quickly. Never mind that it is often part of a motte and bailey argument.

        Are you suggesting that Tim Worstall is in all ways wrong and it’s unacceptable to read him? I have read him along with many others. He was on the nose over rare earths when everyone else was panicking. You rate lots of people I think are pretty terrible thinkers. But I’d argue on the merits of their arguments.

        1. Nothing wrong with Tim Worstall, he just shares your enthusiasm for shouting ‘lump of labour’ whenever someone mentions working hours.

          There are nuanced and important arguments around work time, including around productivity and making efficient use of labour. There are also chancers and idealists, and no doubt some of them do fall for your favourite fallacy. But I’m reviewing this book, and it isn’t relevant here.

          I have the same problem when I write about race, and you drop by the comments section to complain about wokery. Not everyone is saying the same thing, and catchphrase rebuttals can easily become a way of excusing oneself from having to think about difficult things.

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