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It's Time for a 4-Day Workweek
Math don't lie.
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One of my main critiques of Capitalism is its inadequacy in sharing the benefits of technological advancement throughout society. While the forward progress of technology has given the working class iPhones and cars with backup cameras, from a holistic view, workers have largely been excluded from the benefits of improved production processes.
For example, automation, which is often touted as the gateway to utopia, currently harms the working class more than it helps them. While we’d assume robots doing our work would translate to more leisure time for all, the harsh reality is that Capitalist owners will “hire” automated machines instead of people, resulting in higher profits for the owner and unemployment for the worker. (I wrote about solving the automation problem in depth, here.)
However, the harm of Capitalist hoarding technological improvements isn’t limited to the replacement of workers with their SciFi counterparts. Rather, American workers have simply been using more efficient machines, systems, and procedures to raise shareholders’ profits, with little gain for themselves.
To remedy this wrong, and adequately share the benefits of humanity’s collective advancements, the standard workweek should be reduced to four days.
The 5-Day Workweek
To understand the case for a four-day workweek, we must understand how the five-day week came to be. Pre-dating Capitalism, Christendom has long decreed Sunday a day of rest, creating a “natural” six-day workweek. While the creation of a five-day week is often attributed to America’s favorite anti-semite Henry Ford, the reality is that Saturday as a day of rest was earned through a multi-generational campaign of strikes and riots. This movement culminated in an amendment to the 1940 Fair Labor Standards Act, codifying the 40-hour work week.
Not only was this concession to labor power necessary to quell growing militant Socialism, but it was well-reasoned. Around the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. surpassed its father nation of Britain to become the world’s most productive economy. By the 1920s, the U.S. was far and ahead of its competitors, who were more significantly impacted by the recession following WWI.
Looking at the change in GDP per capita (a measure of total market value of all goods and services produced by a nation) between the start of America’s Industrial Revolution (1870) and the eve of The Great Depression (1929), we see a growth rate of 248%. This means, as a whole, American workers — the ones who created this value with the sweat of their brow — were 2.48 times as productive in 1929 as they were in 1870, while still working the same hours and receiving comparable wages.
Facing growing domestic discontent, a looming world war and the inescapable fact workers were producing more goods in less time, the push for a five-day workweek was granted by the powers that be.
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The 4-Day Workweek
If the result of a 248% increase in productivity between 1870 - 1929 was to shave a day off the work week, then we can use similar logic to determine if another day off is warranted. At the onset of the 40-hour work week in 1940, U.S. GDP per capita was $12,005. In 2018, it is $54,335 — an increase of 452%.
The increase between 1940 - 2018 is almost twice the rate of increased productivity that drove the five-day workweek in the early 20th century. So were logic to remain consistent (as it should), the American worker is far overdue for a reduction in working hours.
So, the math points to the ethical case of reducing the work week, but how would it work in practice? Fortunately, an ambitious pilot program of over 70 companies is currently underway, providing tangible results of the four-day week for us to study. The program reached its halfway point last month, prompting the pilot’s stewards to take stock of the results so far. 4 Day Week Global, the non-profit running the program, polled participants to find it was an unambiguous success.
88% of respondents said the four-day week was working “well.”
86% of respondents said they would be “extremely likely” or “likely” to continue the four-day week after the trial ended.
95% of respondents reported no decrease in productivity, with 46% saying productivity remained even, 34% saying it has “improved slightly,” and 15% saying it improved significantly. A key point to recognize here is that 3x as many firms said productivity “improved significantly” (15%) than those that reported decreased productivity (5%).
There are two principal learnings in these results. First, even with consistent pay and a 20% decrease in working hours, the majority of companies saw no decrease in productivity. Second, reduced working hours had a positive impact on worker morale. One manager reported the extra day off improved employee well-being, while 4 Day Week Global described feedback as “a general tenor of positive experiences.”
“We certainly all love the extra day out of the office and do come back refreshed. It's been great for our wellbeing and we're definitely more productive already.” - Nicci Russell, Managing Director, Waterwise
In fact, the desire for a work schedule that affords more time off was a great cause of “The Great Resignation.” A recent survey showed a third of Americans who recently quit their job would have stayed if their employer had offered a four-day workweek.
All-in-all, the case for a mass transition to a four-day workweek is well supported in both theory and practice. Workers want it, the mathematical rationale of our five-day work week supports it, and, for the majority of firms, there will be no tradeoff to production, with even the chance of improvement.
Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
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