01:12, October 16 206 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-16 01:12:07
How to make a four-day week reality

Imagine a Friday morning with no rude awakening by shrill alarm, no dastardly commute: just the joyful prospect of a three-day weekend and the delicious knowledge that it’s yours to enjoy week in, week out.

That might sound like wishful thinking. But a full-pay four-day working week is an idea fast gathering pace. Last month, the TUC backed it. And the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has hinted it could feature in Labour’s next manifesto.

And why not? Who’s to say the daily grind should for evermore take the form of a five-day, 37.5-hour week? In the late 1800s, a six-day, 60-hour week was standard. Perhaps in 2100, people will wonder why on earth we put up with the hours we do today. While there were two big reductions in working hours in the last century, after each of the two world wars, things have stalled since: just two and a half hours shaved off in 70 years.

Of course there’s the question of how we could afford a four-day week in a time of anaemic wage growth, rising prices and low-paid jobs aplenty. Most people simply aren’t able to take a 20% pay cut, which surely makes the four-day working week a pipe dream.

But if history is anything to go by, perhaps not. Technological progress – from the invention of the wheel to the washing machine – has made us collectively richer by enabling us to get more stuff done in the same time. Twenty years ago, it would have taken one person at the supermarket checkout to ring up each basket of shopping. Today, that person might oversee four or five people using self-service checkouts.

This is how the TUC believes a four-day week could become a reality. As automation and artificial intelligence make us all richer, we should, in theory, face a choice: work fewer hours for the same salary or the same hours for more. There are good reasons to go for the former: sacrificing a bit of growth so we all get more leisure time is better for the planet, not to mention our wellbeing, and might even make us more productive when we are at work.

But there are two barriers to realising this working-week nirvana. Britain simply isn’t investing in technological development at anything like the rate needed to make us all more productive. (This is why calls for a robot tax are economically illiterate.) And while technology has made us collectively richer, some have done much better out of it than others. When the ability of shopfloor workers to demand higher wages is diminished – as the declining power of trade unions means it is today – then the supermarket bosses who invested in self-service technology can pocket all the gains themselves.

It’s this power imbalance that makes the question of how we might get to a four-day working week so important. Historically, reductions in the working week have come about as a result of trade union bargaining. But today just 26% of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, down from more than 70% in the 1970s. Unions don’t have the clout to bring about changes in the working week while ensuring workers are paid the same. If the government were to mandate a four-day schedule tomorrow, employees would be looking at an immediate pay cut.

Fortunately, there is another way. While the average working week for full-timers hovers at around 37 hours, the average for all workers – including part-timers – is 32 hours a week, not far off a four-day week. There’s a massive gender gap in part-time working: four in 10 female workers are part-time, but just one in eight men. Fixing this could be the key to getting us to a four-day week.

Some might argue this is no business of the state; it’s just families sharing out their earning and caring responsibilities as they wish. But it’s something the state should care deeply about. Women being more likely to work part time explains a big chunk of the gender pay gap: it holds women back in the workplace, making it harder for them to get promotions and pay rises. Until more men, particularly those in senior positions, work part time, workplaces will never evolve so that it’s possible to progress while working three days a week. Moreover, it’s better for children to have the closer relationship with both parents that comes from caring responsibilities being shared more equally.

Sophia Parker, chief executive of Little Village, has established a part-time week as standard at her charity to attract ambitious people who don’t want to work full-time. She works a three-day week and shares the care of her three children with her husband, who also works a three-day week in a job-share at Aviva. “Not only has Will had to step up to the role of ‘wife’, I’ve had to step back to let him in,” she tells me. “It’s something I found really hard to do after being the primary carer for a number of years – my identity had become very bound up in childcare and running the house.”

Attitudes are shifting in this direction: half of millennial fathers say they would take a pay cut to achieve a better work-life balance, and more than half say childcare should be shared equally. But fathers can often face discrimination from employers if they break with cultural stereotypes and ask to work flexibly.

The state could do much more to support couples to share caring and earning more equally. Currently, mothers and fathers can share their entitlement to parental leave in their baby’s first year. But take-up by fathers has been low: men earn more, paternity pay is worse than maternity pay in most workplaces – meaning sharing leave makes bad financial sense – and men’s requests may not be well received by their employer.

This is in stark contrast to Iceland, where three out of nine months of parental leave must be used by each partner. Because it is use-it-or-lose-it leave, it has quickly become culturally acceptable to take it: the vast majority of Icelandic fathers now spend three months at home caring for their babies. These fathers are not only more likely to do their fair share of domestic work for many years afterwards, they are more likely to go back to work flexibly and share in the caring in the long term too.

The old tools for winning a reduction in the working week – such as trade union bargaining – no longer exist in the same way. But establishing at least three months of shared leave for each parent would help create the social norm that no father or mother should be working more than three or four days a week: a norm that could eventually set the standard for people without children too. Getting men and women to more equally share caring and earning is the best route to a four-day week.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and deputy opinion editor at the Guardian