Is It Time For a Four-Day Week?

I. Ancient workweeks

The Roman calendar was much different than ours. For one, it consisted of 10 months, not 12, and began in spring with March. The months also operated on a 38-day nundinal cycle; each cycle consisting of an eight-day week followed by a day to attend the public market and observe religious ritual. (In Latin, “nundinae” means “nine” as the Romans used to count dates inclusively). It was said that farmers worked so hard during the workweek that they would only groom and bathe on the nundinae.

The column that lists A — H marks where that day falls in the nundinal cycle.

The French Revolutionary Calendar was even more severe. It divided the year into 36 ten-day weeks. Workers were forced to work ten days straight before they were given a day of rest. After only twelve years of use, the calendar was abolished by Napoleon.

The origins of the seven-day workweek can be traced to Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. The Babylonians thought that there were seven planets in the solar system, and they organized their entire days around it. Over time, this gradually spread to other parts of the world. (Interestingly, Jewish people already had their own version of a seven-day week, largely believed to have been constructed for religious observance).

The origins of the weekend can be traced back to Britain. Workers, only having Sunday off to attend church, began to skip out on work on Mondays, reasoning that they were “keeping with Saint Monday.” In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin cheekily wrote that he once received a promotion simply for showing up on Monday: “My constant attendance (I never making a St.Monday) recommended me to the master.”

But the real reason that workers failed to show up on Monday was because they were often too hungover — or perhaps still drunk — from enjoying themselves. Since most were on paid on Saturdays, workers used Mondays as time to unwind and spend the fruits of their labour. The loss in productivity became so significant that employers eventually offered workers a half-Saturday holiday, which became standard in Britain in 1870.

II. The five-day week

In 1908, a New England Mill in the U.S. became the first American factory to create a five-day workweek. The reason being that it sought to accommodate Jewish workers who observed a Saturday sabbath and were making up work on Sundays, which offended some in the Christian majority. The Mill instituted a two-day weekend and other factories began to follow suit, which would be cemented in the economy during the Great Depression as a way to tackle underemployment.

In 1922, Henry Ford followed suit in declaring that the workweek for his factories would be reduced from six to five days. Four years later, Ford Motor Company became one of the first U.S. companies to limit the work day to eight hours. “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” However, admittedly, Ford argued that more leisure time would enable workers to spend more time purchasing material goods. He was still, after all, a capitalist.

In 1937, this became an official law: Fair Labor Standards Act. Unions made sure that it also included a federal minimum wage, over time pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week, and other important protections like children under sixteen could not work in manufacturing or mining, or during school hours.

Since then, this has been the standard for workers.

III. The value of leisure

For Henry Ford, time for leisure was critical for workers to consume goods. But for Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel Laureate, leisure in itself is an intrinsic good. “Without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things,” he writes in his landmark essay, In Praise of Idleness, “There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.” He continues:

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure. In America men often work long hours even when they are well off; such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of unemployment…

Russell clarified his radical proposal:

When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours’ work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit.

He concludes:

Above all, there will be happiness and joy in life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time spent in professional work to pursuits of public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion.

Since 1935, when Russell first released his essay, the concept of shorter working hours has gained steam in the business community. An exceptional case is Popular Guardian, a New Zealand trustee firm, which ran a two-month trial last year where its staff of 240 worked a four-day workweek, eight-hours per day while continuing to get paid for five days’ work.

The results were so overwhelmingly positive that the four-day workweek became permanent. “To be honest, some of those activities [family and life commitments] were being done within office hours,” Andrew Barnes, founder of the company, stated to The Guardian“If you give people the chance to be as good as they can be outside the office — because they have more time — than you are going to get a better performance in the office.”

The science is there too. One study found that people who worked 55 hours per week performed more poorly on cognitive tasks than those who worked 40 hours. Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, insists that his staff, who mostly work remote, stick to working 40-hours per week until May, when Basecamp switches to “summer hours” and staff only work 32-hours per week.

“People are always surprised by that,” Fried explains to CNBC, “and I tell them you can get plenty of stuff done in 32 and 40 hours if you cut out all the stuff that’s taking up your time.” Basecamp refuses to schedule meetings or insist that staff share their calendars with others. The idea is that people work best when left alone, and if you want to speak with them you have to ask.

Inherent in how Barnes and Fried operate their companies are the positions that work is not an end in and of itself and people are more productive when they feel refreshed and have the other areas of their life under control.

It also illustrates that work, no matter how little or much you have, expands to fill whatever amount of time you dedicate to it. If you give yourself a week to complete a project, you’ll use the entire week; if you give yourself only a day to complete a project, you’ll likely finish it that day.

This has been federally legislated before. In 2000, France made into law a thirty-five-hour week. It’s manifested into a variety of flexible arrangements: extra days off (on average 16 days per year), shorter daily hours, and alternating four and five-day weeks. A year later, France declared that the law created jobs and reduced unemployment.

IV. The environmental argument

But there’s another reason to shorten the workweek: lower CO2 emissions. Less commuting, less energy spent on public and office buildings, less material goods produced, less material goods consumed. While the research is tentative, a shorter week, if executed right, looks promising.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at the impact of reduced work hours over the rest of the century by an annual average of 0.5%. The think-tank estimated that such a change could effectively reduce around 25% — 50% of the global warming that is not already locked in (warming caused by 1990 levels of greenhouse gas concentrations already in the atmosphere). The report concluded, “In addition to reducing emissions by other means, a significant reduction in climate change is possible by choosing a more European response to productivity gains rather than following a model more like that of the United States.”

There are still, however, lots we don’t know though. For one, leisure activities aren’t carbon-free. Henry Ford supported a five-day week so workers could drive their cars and consume goods. We have yet to know whether increased leisure impacts consumption patterns. If not, this might simply lead to more time spent watching Netflix or frequenting shopping malls. However, if we shorten the week while simultaneously shift taxes away from labour and towards consumption, it’s much more likely our ecological footprint will be lowered.

In other words, the link between how much we work and the size of our carbon footprint is complicated.

V. Is it time for a change?

What we do know is that the link between productivity and hours worked is no longer linear. Information workers thrive when they’re rested, focused, and deliberately practice their skills. Those who are overworked, on the other hand, feel stressed, burnt out, and perform poorer on cognitively-demanding tasks.

The narrative of the virtue of work is changing. Our current economy is broken, and less people believe that work is an end in and of itself. We want to spend time with our loved ones, pursue our hobbies, and experience all that life has to offer. With gains in technology and our modernized interpretation of what it means to be productive, the five-day, 40-hour week can no longer be justified.

Whether it’s to increase our time for leisure or a commitment to fight climate change, reducing how much time we work can lead to immeasurable benefits.


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See you next Tuesday.