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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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