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Of Course We Can Afford A Four Day Week – But Do We Want To?

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This isn’t the correct question to be asking at all:

Covid threatens to kill the five-day week
Spain and Unilever experiment with a four-day working week, but can we afford it?

Sure we can afford a four day week. We’re in one of the richest societies that man has ever managed to create. We could, easily, move to a four day week and still thrive and survive.

Assume that there’s no increase in productivity, just for a moment. Then consider this:

If we move from a five day to a four day week we lose 20% of our output. That also means, by definition, losing 20% of our consumption opportunities. So, that takes us back from our current level of GDP per capita ($43,000 or so) to $34,000 or so. That is, back to the days of 1999 and Cool Britannia.

Life wasn’t so terrible then, the Brown Terror hadn’t fully taken hold, we all thought it was pretty fine when we were there. But the question isn’t could we go back to that? It’s do we want to go back to that? The clear and obvious answer being no, we don’t.

For we’ve had two instances of slipping back toward that living standard, ’08 and ’20. We’ve complained, vociferously and bitterly, both times. Therefore we don’t want to go back to those living standards of yore, do we?

Now add in the idea that productivity will increase if we do so. It will, obviously. We’ve all heard of diminishing marginal returns, right? Good, so, our 37th hour of work in a week is less productive than our 32nd. So, if we reduce the number of working hours the productivity of those remaining will increase.

And yet, and yet. Do we prefer the consumption opportunities of those last few hours of less productive work more than we do the leisure to be gained by not working them?

Well, not obviously, no.

We seem to like taking some portion of our greater income – our greater consumption possibilities – as leisure but only a minority of it. So, therefore, a move to a four day working week is not what most people want, is it? Or, as we might put it, sure, we can afford it but we don’t want to.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. People with comfortable incomes work less but expect the same pay, people with less comfortable incomes will still work the same for same pay. The past year seems to idicate that many of those presently comfortable people would not be missed if they did no work at all— but they would certainly complain load and long if they missed their income.

  2.  A local software firm allowed people to switch to a four day week if they wanted to and a lot of people did, but in one of two ways. The senior people, who were generally on high salaries, within 10 years of retirement and without mortgages, took 20% pay cuts. Others simply worked the full 37.5 hours per week over 4 days, keeping the same pay but getting longer weekends for longer working days.

  3. It’s my observation that in any enterprise of sufficient size, half of the people are there to stop the other half getting anything done. Give them a four-day week and productivity will increase. Paying them to stay away would mean the original 100% goes to 200%, just like that. Now the other half can afford to go 4-day and deliver 160%

  4. rhoda–we’ve seen observations that agree, but begin to have other problems identifying which half is which. Of course, in a sufficiently large organization (most national government organizations) it probably doesn’t make much difference.

  5. @ Barks
    Most of the workers inside the organisation can identify most of those who are stopping them working (e.g. with pointless meetings).
    I would qualify rhoda’s point with the observation that some companies have genuine safety officers who stop people getting killed, as distinct from “elf’n’safety” but once again most workers know which are which.

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