Trials in the UK, Spain, Iceland and Sweden are measuring the impact of shorter workweeks on productivity, wellbeing, the environment and gender equality
The five-day workweek is an anachronistic relic of a time when conditions were far different than today.
Back in 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances, slowed population growth, increasing capital (or “material things”) and changing economic priorities would make three-hour shifts or a 15-hour workweek possible and desirable within 100 years.
Then, he wrote, “The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”
Keynes cautioned, however, that the “age of leisure and abundance” could be met with dread: “For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
Still, he remained optimistic: “I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.”
We’re eight years from Keynes’s 100-year prediction. Technology has advanced, more than he could have imagined. Population growth has slowed, although not stabilized. Capital has increased, albeit much wealth has been hoarded and monopolized by a few. And environmental and social crises have led many to question economic priorities. So, why are we still working hours similar to 70 years ago?
Part of the answer lies in the postwar adoption of “consumerism” as an economic model. It may also relate to the concern Keynes raised: the “dread” that people won’t know how to occupy their leisure time.
But with so many people feeling overwhelmed by an out-of-whack work-life balance, the latter isn’t an insurmountable problem. Women, especially, are feeling the crunch. Unlike in the 1950s, most have joined the workforce, but as in those days, they still do most of the housekeeping and child care.
Keynes distinguished between “absolute” and “relative” needs. The latter, he argued, “satisfy the desire for superiority,” and “may indeed be insatiable.” But Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz notes that society moulds our choices. We “learn how to consume by consuming,” he writes, and how to “enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure.”
Because we’ve failed to reduce work hours gradually, as Keynes envisioned, we’re unlikely to achieve 15-hour workweeks by 2030. But environmental and social conditions have sparked a move toward a four-day work week. (David Suzuki Foundation staff have enjoyed a four-day workweek since its founding in 1990.)
The biggest trial is in the UK, where 3,300 workers at 70 wide-ranging companies, from small to large, recently started working four days a week with no loss in pay. The experiment – led by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the think-tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, and researchers at Cambridge and Oxford universities and Boston College – will “measure the impact on productivity in the business and the wellbeing of its workers, as well as the impact on the environment and gender equality,” a Guardian article says.
Governments are also backing trials in Scotland and Spain, and countries like Iceland and Sweden have run successful trials. Along with other benefits like increased vacation time and flexibility, and working from home, shorter workweeks not only give people better lives, they’re also good for the environment. Fewer people commuting means reduced pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion.
The pandemic taught us it’s possible to rapidly shift our ways of thinking and acting, especially as they relate to work. It’s past time to recognize that life isn’t given meaning through excessive consumption and toil, but by having time to spend with friends and families and by pursuing interests outside of work. That will even benefit employers by helping staff be happier, healthier and more productive.
We may not achieve Keynes’s predicted 15-hour workweeks by the end of this decade, but we can surely aim for a better balance.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.