The 4-Day Workweek: A Historical & Social Analysis

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What is the history of the 4-day workweek? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to the community?

An increasing number of global organizations are trying out the 4-day workweek, but the benefits of a reduced working schedule can come at a cost to others. As a result, it’s not yet clear if this kind of reduced schedule is viable on a large scale.

Read on to learn about the history of the 4-day workweek and how it can help or harm the community.

Is a 4-Day Workweek the Future of Work?

An overwhelming majority of US workers (83% in one survey and 92% in another) would like their employer to switch to—or at least offer the option of—the 4-day workweek. Globally, increasing competition for workers is driving employers to offer reduced work schedules, and pilot programs have already concluded in New Zealand, Spain, Japan, and Iceland. More are currently underway in the UK, Belgium, Canada, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates

This push to reduce work schedules gathered momentum during the pandemic, which forced employers to become more flexible about working arrangements and led many workers to reflect on unhealthy work cultures that had led to problems with work-life balance. These changes have nudged the balance of power away from employers and toward workers, allowing them to demand benefits that would have been far-fetched just a few years ago.

Is a 4-day week a good compromise between workers’ needs and employers’ demands? The jury’s still out. Advocates of the 4-day week say that it makes employees happier, increases productivity, reduces employee burnout, and has impressive environmental benefits. However, companies continue to hesitate because of the potential effects on the bottom line. 

How do we balance the needs of workers with those of businesses, and how would a large-scale shift to a 4-day week affect the wider community? In this article, we’ll give a brief history of the 4-day workweek and then tease out the pros and cons for each set of stakeholders: workers, then organizations, then the community.

The History of Reduced Work Schedules

The idea of a shorter working week isn’t new. For a long time, it seemed to be an inevitability that would naturally accompany technological advancements: As machines replaced manual labor, the theory went, there would be less work left for people to do. In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes even predicted that in 2030 his grandchildren would struggle to find enough work to fill three hours a day

Keynes’s prediction came on the heels of Henry Ford’s decision in 1926 to reduce the working hours in his factories to five-day, 40-hour weeks, a move that spread to other businesses during the Great Depression. In the context of working hours that had already decreased from 70 per week in the early 19th century to 60 in the late 19th century, Keynes’s prediction seemed completely reasonable. 

But, despite a spike of interest in the 1970s, 4-day weeks haven’t caught on universally. While working hours in most countries have steadily declined over the last few decades, this decline has stagnated in the US, particularly over the last decade. While technology has made some jobs more efficient, in other jobs it’s allowed people to work from anywhere and at any time of day (or night), leading to an “always on” mindset that can lead to burnout.

What Are the Results So Far?

Four-day workweeks have been piloted at a range of private companies and even by a few state and national governments. But it can be difficult to compare these pilots because they’ve all been implemented in slightly different ways. The main differences are in the type of 4-day week and in the strategies used to squeeze a workweek into four days.

There are two broad types of 4-day workweek: the compressed schedule and the reduced schedule. People on a compressed schedule work the same 40 hours per week, but in four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days. Examples of compressed schedules include Shake Shack’s 2021 trial for managers and the Utah state government’s year-long pilot, which began in 2008. 

People on a reduced schedule work fewer hours with no reduction in pay. This might amount to a 4.5-day week, as with the United Arab Emirates government, or it might be an even shorter 32-hour week (four eight-hour days). Examples of 32-hour week pilots include software company Wildbit, which implemented a 4-day week in 2017, and the UK national trial that’s currently in progress. In the UK model, participating employees make a commitment to follow the 100:80:100 model (100% of the salary for 80% of the time while maintaining 100% of the productivity of a five-day week). Even within these broad categories, there’s a lot of variation in how people make them work. For example, the time-saving strategies of workers on reduced schedules might include reducing lunch hours, automating repetitive tasks, capping meeting length and attendance, designating meeting-free days, and setting aside dedicated quiet time for deep work.

Effects on the Community

One area that’s often overlooked when evaluating 4-day workweeks is their potential effect on society more broadly. If only a few companies make the shift, this won’t make much of a dent in community patterns. But if a large number of companies make a long-term shift to 4-day weeks, the repercussions will be more widely felt. Here are the pros and cons for the community:

Advantages of a 4-Day Workweek

  • The 4-day workweek benefits the environment. One research team calculated that if a 4-day workweek were implemented across the whole of the UK, the country’s carbon footprint would decrease by more than 20%. Data from the Utah government pilot suggested that over the year of the project, the amount of carbon dioxide saved would be equivalent to getting rid of 2,300 cars.
  • Four-day workweeks may increase employment. There’s not a great deal of data on this so far, but the Swedish nursing home that participated in the six-hour day pilot had to hire 17 new workers to cover the extra shifts. (The program was ultimately discontinued because of these additional costs.) Deputy Mayor of Gothenburg Daniel Bernmar adds that not only would implementing 4-day weeks on a large scale create more jobs, it would also encourage people to stay in the workforce longer before retiring. (There are a few counterarguments to this point. First, in tight labor markets, the shift could exacerbate labor shortages. Second, France’s unemployment rate didn’t budge after working hours across the country were reduced from 40 to 35 per week in 2000.)
  • There may be more general economic benefits. People who are working one fewer day a week are likely to spend more on their day off, boosting the local and global economy.
  • People with 4-day workweeks may spend more time volunteering. The Utah government’s pilot program saw workers spending their days off volunteering at churches, in animal shelters, and for social programs like Habitat for Humanity.

Disadvantages of a 4-Day Workweek

  • Shorter workweeks may aggravate existing inequalities:
    • Between genders: Social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam calls 4-day weeks a “male solution” because caring responsibilities can’t be condensed into four days. If men tend to use their day off to advance their careers while women use theirs to care for children, this may undo some of the progress we’ve made to increase gender equality in the workplace. 
    • Between types of workers: Four-day weeks are far more feasible in white-collar “knowledge worker” jobs that have relatively high salaries and less feasible for manual workers. It’s also unclear how a 4-day week would translate to shift workers and others (such as nurses, drivers, and assembly line workers) who aren’t on office schedules. These people make up 60% of the workforce in most developed countries.
    • Between older and younger and disabled and non-disabled workers: Reduced schedules may disadvantage older workers and others who can’t easily speed up the pace of their work.
The 4-Day Workweek: A Historical & Social Analysis

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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