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Why We Can, And Should, Move To A Four-Day Week

11/10/2017 16:02 BST | Updated 12/10/2017 11:09 BST
Bim via Getty Images

Have you ever asked yourself why do we work nine-to-five, five days a week? Why do we have a weekend, and why is it two days?

It wasn't always this way: before the industrial revolution, peasants within Britain's agricultural economy would regularly have time for rest, leisure, and festivities. Historians have even found that during times of high wages, peasants would work no more than 150 days a year.

The industrial revolution drastically changed the way we worked and the amount of time we spent at our workplaces. In 1840, the average worker in the UK worked grueling 69-hour weeks, often in horrendous conditions and for low pay. This began to change after workers organized through trade unions to demand a shorter working week, with no reduction in pay. The Eight Hour Movement famously demanded "Eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours to do as we may". And thus, through organized struggle, workers won the weekend we enjoy today.

However, after those victories, the idea of the shorter working week as a central demand of progressive politics was forgotten. Instead, after 1945 full employment became the central economic goal of most advanced economies. The work ethic molded our of politics, which came to define our current context. We live in a world divided into 'workers and shirkers', where the mantra of the 'hard-working family' is repeated with religious fervor.

On the other side of the equation, productivity has increased massively. Since the 1970s the UK has become 2.5 times more productive. This means that we are producing two-and-a-half times as much stuff using the same amount of labour time. And yet we have chosen not to reduce our working week in an equal proportion.

Additionally, working hours vary drastically between countries. What is fascinating here is that it seems there is no direct line of causation between working longer hours and greater amounts of wealth. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case: countries that work fewer hours tend to be richer. Within Europe for example, the Netherlands and Germany have some of the lowest number of hours worked per year, but some of the highest levels of GDP per person. At the other end of the spectrum, Greece works the longest number of hours in Europe and yet has the lowest levels of GDP per capita.

It should be clear by now: there is nothing 'natural' about the amount of time we spend in work: it has changed throughout history and today varies enormously between different countries. But why would we want to work less? At the 4DayWeek Campaign we argue that a shorter working week would benefit our society, our economy, our environment, and our democracy:

Society

A shorter working week would improve our mental and physical health by giving us more time more time to exercise, eat a healthy diet and less time spent in stressful and unfulfilling jobs - in

2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.

It will give us more time to spend with our loved ones, build relationships and strengthen communities. It will also help bring about the creation of a fairer and more gender-equal society through the more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work, including of caring roles traditionally ascribed to women.

Economy

A shorter working week would be used as the means through which we reduce persistent levels of underemployment - whereby people are in work but do not get as many hours as they need for a decent standard of living. The gap between those who report themselves as overworked, and those who report themselves as underworked is growing and at its widest point since before the 2008 financial crash. In a situation in which there are people with too much work living alongside those with too little, we argue that the logical solution to this is to redistribute what good work is available - to the benefit of all.

A shorter working week also helps create happier and more efficient workers. This would help reduce turnover and absenteeism, and lead to a workforce that is more committed, more creative and more productive.

Environment

Commuting and cooking are the most carbon intensive activities we do on a daily basis - a shorter working week will allow for a more sustainable lifestyle, giving us more time to cycle and walk, instead of driving. Air pollution in the UK causes 40,000 premature deaths a year - we could decrease the number of commutes by a fifth immediately by moving towards a 4 Day Week and thus drastically reduce deadly air pollution and improve the quality of urban life.

A four-day week will help reduce our carbon footprint - moving away from convenience-led consumption which is damaging our environment. Research has indicated that a reduction of in working hour drastically reduces carbon emissions due to decreased consumption of goods and energy.

Democracy

More than ever we need to become actively involved in politic and make the decisions that most impact our lives. David Frayne has said that the "strength of democracy depends on people having the time to engage and participate in the process". And yet in contemporary society we do not have the time to actually engage with politics, participate in local activities, get informed and campaign for change. Time should be seen as a fundamental resource to the functioning of a healthy democracy.

Check out the 4DayWeek Campaign at: www.4DayWeek.co.uk or on Twitter @4Day_Week