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June 13, 2022

The four-day workweek

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Interest in the four-day workweek has skyrocketed in the last few months, perhaps stimulated by workers’ power during these times of very low unemployment and by pressures from advocacy groups. But what’s actually been happening to four-day work? What could happen over the next decade?

Very little data (but many anecdotes!) are available on this subject. For the few countries that offer data on days of work, the evidence is clear: four-day work has been rising, even among full-time workers. In the US it has risen from under 2% of full-time workers in 1973 to over 6% in 2018. Similar growth has occurred in the few other countries with such data: Germany, less than 3% (1995–1997) to over 6% (2016–2018); South Korea, 1% (1999) to nearly 8% (2019); the Netherlands, 3% (1975) to 13% (2005).

In our research Jeff Biddle and I examined the trend by considering the substantial changes in demographic characteristics and industrial structure that have occurred. These changes, however, account for none of the upward trend. We suggest that it arose partly because workers generally prefer to bunch their leisure—they like a three-day weekend instead of the same total leisure spread over more days. That employers’ behavior has also changed is evidenced by the decline in the wage penalty—lower hourly earnings—among workers benefiting from a four-day week, a drop from a 4% penalty from 1973 to 1991 to a 1% penalty from 1997 to 2018. While workers’ interest in four-day work has increased, the technology that allows employers to offer such work at little or no loss in profits has become more accommodating.

Proposals to implement four-day weeks are of two general types. One would let workers spend four eight-hour days on the job—cutting total weekly work time by 20%—with no cut in pay. It’s impossible to believe with 20% less time working that total product will remain the same. If that were true, it suggests that workers are currently wasting 20% of their time and would imply that companies are very inefficient, allowing a lot of loafing on the job. The latter is certainly not the case as recent research shows. There’s nothing wrong with people working less and working on only four days/week. But thinking that they can do that and that most employers will pay them the same total each week is pie-in-the-sky: there just isn’t that much slack—that much wasted time—in most companies. 

The second type of proposal makes more sense: encourage companies to allow more workers to bunch their current full-time work (be it 40 weekly hours, 36, or 35) into four rather than five days. This is consistent with trends in four-day work, and it seems consistent with many workers’ preferences. If workers are less productive with such schedules, they will earn less per week—few employers can afford keeping pay the same if total product drops. But the evidence suggests that many workers would be better off—many may be willing to enjoy more of their leisure on consecutive days and work more intensively on the others for a little less total pay. 

The four-day week is becoming more widespread; and with the revolution in working time and location produced by the Covid-19 shock I expect it will grow further. What will not happen is a broad cut in total work time along with the four-day week: people are unwilling to take the large cut in pay that would arise when cutting work time reduces total product. Sadly, we can’t work a lot less and expect to keep incomes unchanged—we can’t get something for nothing.

© Daniel S. Hamermesh

Daniel S. Hamermesh is professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and at Royal Holloway University of London, and is Editor-in-Chief of IZA World of Labor.

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