Why a three day weekend wouldn't work

The Green Party wants us to spend less time in the office, but a four day week would be tricky to administer.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 03 Apr 2017

How would you like to spend every Friday with your family, hitting the gym or just lazing around in bed instead of going into work? Bliss, right? And it’s not as leftfield an idea as you might think.

Way back in the 1930s the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that as technology and productivity improved, the working week would drastically shorten as humans chose to spend more time at rest and less in the office or on the factory floor.

Yet here we are in the office on a Monday as usual. For some reason, despite all the economic gains we have made in the post-war period, the 40 hour, five day week remains the standard (for those of us who work full time in white collar jobs, at least).

With all the talk of changing patterns of work, robots coming to take our jobs and the need to improve Britain’s productivity, it’s not surprising to see people raising the issue the again. In 2014 Professor John Ashton, the then-president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, called for a four-day week to combat rising levels of stress and to reduce unemployment.

Now the Green Party, admittedly not often a source of sensible economic ideas, has done the same. ‘There’s a lot of evidence that suggests when people are exhausted their productivity goes down,’ the party’s co-leader Caroline Lucas said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday. ‘What we want to do is take a step back and think what is the purpose of the economy, what kind of country do we want to be? Do we really want a future where all of us are just trying to work even harder bringing our work with us when we go home in the evenings and at weekends?’

Of course we don’t. But is cutting the number of workdays a practical solution to that? Part of the theory goes that by working fewer hours we end up making better use of those we do work, as we’re more focused and less tired. There’s probably some merit to that point – who can honestly they say they get as much done on a Friday as they do at the start of the week? But it seems unlikely that the energy boost we’d get from spending one less day at the office would make up for the hours lost. 

Even if it did, the real challenge would be implementing such a policy. At present the Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 exists mainly because of convention, not law. Work is theoretically limited to 48 hours per week but such rules are flimsy as most workers can opt out of them. There are few restrictions on when in the week those hours should be worked, and of course plenty of people work at evenings and weekends. Reducing the number of hours permitted and making the rules more rigid could be a serious drag on the economy and reduce Britain’s international competitiveness.

It’s not clear exactly how the Greens would go about reducing working hours. They pointed the BBC towards this report by the left wing New Economics Foundation think tank (which in fact proposes slimming down the working week to a mere 21 hours), but that doesn’t shed much light on the practicalities either.

The biggest hurdle such a proposal would have to overcome is cultural. The human race probably could collectively do as Keynes suggested and down tools for the majority of days and still lead a perfectly comfortable life. But Keynes seemingly underestimated either our desire to work or our desire to accumulate wealth. Why settle for mere comfort when you can strive for more than that?

Many people continue to work more than they strictly need to because they want to. For those who don’t there is always the option to go part-time. At the other end of the spectrum, those who are determined to be make more money often tend to use more of their time for work. More than a third (35%) of self-employed people work 45 or more hours per week and 13% worked for 60 or more, according to the ONS, compared to just 23% and 4% for employees. Some people live for their vocation - good luck telling a driven entrepreneur to stop working so much.

The Greens are nonetheless probably right in saying that we spend too much time on the job. Now that we carry around all our emails on a device in our pockets it can be difficult to slip out of work mode. But political intervention is unlikely to solve that without creating just as many problems. The onus is on individuals and their employers to figure out the right amount of work for themselves.

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