Support is growing for the idea of the 8-hour, four day work week. What would you do with your extra time if every weekend had three days?
This Thursday, the current United Auto Workers (UAW) contract, which was adopted in 2019 and covers about 146,000 hourly workers at Ford, GM and Stellantis, is set to expire. Negotiations have already begun between the Big Three automakers and the union in hopes of averting a strike by September 14th. Opening demands from the union include proposals which even UAW President Shawn Fain called “audacious,” such as a 46% (compounded) pay raise over four years (to account for inflation while approximating the growth in Big Three CEO compensation in recent years) as well a four day work week at full time pay.
One can imagine the laughter emanating from those cushy C-suites as management counter-offered 9% wage increases and a rollover of the same benefits agreed to in the 2019 contract. While the four day work week and CEO-sized double-digit raises may be non-starters for workers sweating it out on the factory floor, the shorter week is an idea rapidly gaining support in a greater work culture disrupted by the pandemic and increasingly questioned by a younger generation which (not without reason) perceives the erstwhile virtues of hard work and employer loyalty to be a scam.
Because it can mean different things to different people, let’s consider at what a four day work week would look like.
The UAW proposal would mean that workers receive the same 40-hour salary while working 32 hours, or four 8-hour days per week. A Morning Consult poll from last May, however, defined it as four 10+ hour days. Even with the same amount of paid hours, the poll found that 87% of American respondents expressed interest in the condensed 40-hour week. Most, 75%, were interested in the 40-hour four day work week only if it were all, or almost all, remote work. Only 51% supported the 4×10 week if they had to spend it at the job site or office.
All of which drives home one of the truths behind the appeal of the four day work week from the point of view of both the workers and management, which is that nobody’s working at top productivity during each of those traditional 40 hours. One UK study from a while back even found that most workers are only truly productive for about three hours per day. When Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, trialed a 32-hour, four day work week, they found that workers were just as productive they as had been before, and that they simply cut back on “low value tasks and water cooler chit-chat.”
Last year, 33 companies comprising 900 workers in the U.S. and Ireland conducted what is, so far, the world’s largest study of the four day work week. What they found was that revenue increased by 38% during the experiment, while absenteeism and turnover fell. At the end of the trial, almost everyone, workers and employers included, wanted to remain on the new schedule.
Fewer commutes are better for the planet, too.
Is a condensed work week for everyone? Of course not, just like the 40-hour week isn’t for everyone right now. There will still be those, such as nurses, doctors, emergency personnel, the military, and the self-employed, who will find it impossible to work fewer hours, and in those cases, perhaps compensation should be adjusted appropriately. Law offices may have mixed results, as a shorter work week may mean fewer billable hours, but a search of law firm blogs did turn up success stories for some offices which adopted shorter schedules.
How would workplaces which are accustomed to the five-day, 40+ hour grind adapt to a four day work week? No answer is one-size-fits-all, but we can learn something by looking at history. The current work week wasn’t always in vogue; during the Industrial Revolution, factory workers were expected to put in 10 and 16 hour days, as if the constant flow of manufacturing lines were comparable to the labor that a farmer could put in while working the land. When 8-hour days became the norm, how did companies adjust? They found ways, and their modern counterparts could, too. When Henry Ford’s factories adopted the new 8-hour, five day work weeks, their productivity went up and profits doubled within two years.
So, if you had an extra day every week with the same income hitting your bank account, what would you do with your extra time?
Resting and relaxing were popular among those in the U.S./Ireland trial, followed by taking care of family, the home, and personal maintenance. Some people like the idea of spending more time with their kids as they grow up and their parents as they age.
One could turn that extra day into more economic opportunity, too. Becoming a part-time entrepreneur by starting a business, a side hustle, or even growing a garden could add to direct and indirect income. How big is your to-be-read pile? Do you have hobbies or craftwork you’d like to start or get back into? Volunteer opportunities to pursue? Would people become more informed citizens, or form community networks for mutual aid? The sky’s the limit.
If the changing world around us has you less motivated to toil for The Man while your family and personal needs go ignored, you’re not alone. The culture is changing. More and more companies are eyeing the four day work week and the benefits it brings, both to workers and to the bottom line. Perhaps one day, just like ceramic knick knack collections, paper catalogs and decorative doll-headed toilet paper covers, working 40+ hours per week will be something our ancestors enjoyed before people found a better way to live.