Spain’s deputy prime minister, Pablo Iglesias, recently announced that the Socialist-Podemos coalition government would be looking into reducing working hours and shortening the standard work week to four days, with the Spanish finance ministry considering proposals to pilot a subsidy scheme for companies introducing shorter working hours. The proposal comes on the back of steps by Valencia’s leftist regional government to introduce its own working time reductions, setting out an ambitious plan drawn up in consultation with “post-work” London-based think tank Autonomy. And here in Britain, the Institute of Health Equity’s just-published review of health inequalities during Covid-19 recommended that “consideration is given to the introduction of a four-day week” as an essential part of creating a healthy work-life balance.
The debate around working time is clearly starting to shift, with the Covid-19 pandemic raising profound questions about our relationship to work. From extended periods of furlough to the normalisation of working from home to the closure of countless businesses, it has suddenly become possible to envisage a different way of organising our working lives. Even a vaccine will not return us to pre-coronavirus “normality” – and perhaps it shouldn’t. In The Case for a Four Day Week, published by Polity Press earlier this month, Anna Coote, Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling argue that now is a good moment to revisit the fundamentals of work, and get serious about shrinking the working week.
Labour floated a four-day week in its December 2019 manifesto, following a party conference vote making it party policy. But while the move, backed up by opinion polls, demonstrated the growing appeal of the idea, some critical details of the scheme were less clear, including the union-led mechanism to reduce working time, the projected ten-year timeframe to achieve a 32-hour workweek as standard, and perhaps most importantly, the reassurance that this working time reduction would lead to no loss of pay. In a manifesto of many promises, a four-day week looked too much like just another spending commitment: and to an electorate jaded by a decade of austerity, it was too easily presented as a pipe dream.
Yet as Coote, Harper and Stirling argue, it is not. The idea of using the wealth that we can produce to reduce the length of time we spend producing it is an old one. The idea that working time could be determined by something other than the demands of profit is older still. It was the Industrial Revolution, specifically the use of technologies clustered around the coal-powered steam engine, that resulted in a dramatic regimentation and reorganisation of people’s experience of time. As the historian E.P. Thompson recounts in his classic essay, Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, pre-industrial working life was built on radically different rhythms to those we are used to. The harvest, for example, demanded interspersing periods of intense activity with extended periods of rest, while skilled craft workers (making use of their relative scarcity) had significant freedoms to organise their working week as they saw fit. With assorted saints’ days, holy days and customary holidays, the actual time spent at work was dramatically less: economist-sociologist Juliet Schor has estimated that an agricultural labourer in fourteenth-century England typically worked around 150 days per year. These standards and expectations persisted well into the seventeenth century.
To destroy all this in the service of steam-led production required a systematic effort, marshalling ideological claims about the dignity and necessity of labour, an expanding range of monetary consumption and often, outright repression. Unions were criminalised for a generation in Britain, from the first Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 until their repeal in 1824; days in the first factories were monstrously long, pushing 12 hours, six days a week.
Yet as capitalism spread, so did its counterbalancing institutions: trade unions, a labour movement, the first glimmerings of a welfare state in the form of pensions. The modern workers’ movement scored its first major victories in the campaign to reduce these hours, with the Factory Act of 1844 legally mandating no more than ten per day. The decline in living standards in the early industrial decades was arrested, though material improvements remained unevenly distributed across the working class. Integral to these improvements, however, were successive reductions in the working day, until the forty-hour, five-day work week became standard across much of the Western world by the mid-twentieth century.
Progress since then has been dramatically slower. The predictions of those who, like liberal economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, expected that by the end of the twentieth century, a fifteen-hour workweek would be the norm, fell a long way short.
In recent decades, our relationship to work has become even more disordered: the reformist labour movement promise of “a fair day’s wage for a fair days’ work” – arguably achieved for a sizeable minority in the aftermath of the second world war – has been whittled away via enforced part-time work, zero-hour contracts, low pay and pervasive insecurity. 10.2 million Britons want to work less, 6.6 million of those even if that means less pay. We suffer from a maldistribution not only of income and wealth, but of time. We have lost control over perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our existence; it is no wonder that “post-work” theorists like the newly-fashionable Andre Gorz argued that the control and the reduction of working time was a necessary step towards freedom.
The Case for a Four Day Week is strongest when dealing specifically with gender inequalities and work. Activities in what the authors call the “core” economy – the “essential foundation” of the “formal economy” involving the “reproduction of human assets and relationships” – are largely still undertaken by women, most often working without wages. This inequality in the core is then reproduced in the “formal” paid economy – that part which our usual measures like GDP pick-up, including paid work and sold output – as women “take on low-paid jobs – often part-time, casual and precarious ones that have few opportunities for advancement – because much of their time is taken up with unpaid caring responsibilities”. The gender inequalities in its essential foundations are reproduced throughout the whole economy; the fact that our conventional statistics (like GDP) fail to identify this, hiding what is mostly women’s work, is one critically important reason why fixating on GDP is a bad idea for the left. Changes in it can describe part of what is happening in the economy; but GDP growth is not a guide to how the economy should work.
Just as it excludes women’s work, so too does GDP generally exclude environmental damage – sometimes even counting it as a positive, as in the case of burning down a forest for farmland. On this point, the authors argue that increased work hours lead not only to (usually, somewhat) better pay but also to the increased consumption of “resource-intensive ‘convenience’ products and services”. Working time fixes not only a pattern of working life, but also a pattern of consumption; the first lockdown and its concomitant enforced non-work, for example, resulted in reduced carbon emissions.
This relationship between patterns of work and patterns of consumption opens up problems for the left that it would often rather ignore. But it gets to the heart of our difficulties – which are significantly deeper than Brexit, the perfidiousness of some MPs or a biased media, and which apply not only in Britain but at least across Europe. The long historical period during which the left could win support by offering to expand society’s “formal” wealth – that which is produced by paid work, or can be easily sold for money – is reaching its endpoint. On one side, the decline in productivity amongst capitalism’s most developed economies is well-known; on the other, the intrusion of capitalist production into the natural environment is now undeniable. Taxes can, of course, redistribute what we already have; but redistribution alone cannot restructure how we produce or consume.
Both productivity decline and environmental intrusion threaten capitalism’s ability to continue to expand the “formal” wealth of society; even a simply reformist project for the left, therefore, needs to think much more sharply about “informal” wealth. In practical terms, this would mean making a four-day week not simply one manifesto offer amongst many, but using working time reduction as a means to help structure an entire programme for the left, focused on promoting not more, but better consumption.
It may also mean the left shifting its focus from making demands of central government to winning at a local and regional level, and instituting at least part of the vision we would like to see. The Case for a Four Day Week ends with some practical examples of this being done, like the Communication Workers Union’s successful campaign for a 35-hour week across Royal Mail, or the 28-hour week won by German union IG Metall “after six rounds of often bruising talks and a series of 24 hour strikes in more than eighty companies”. The authors stress that no one policy will suffice, however, but rather that a range must be taken at all levels in society – for example, considering the changed needs for public space and services a reduced week may create, as Valencia is currently doing. Universal Basic Income is, rather glaringly, not considered, but as a dramatic means to reduce dependency on paid work, it is clearly part of the armoury of working time reduction. Nevertheless, this book should be considered an essential part of the debate, and the arguments and evidence it marshals will be of great use in years to come.
James Meadway is an economist and Novara Media columnist.