Can we afford NOT to have a shorter working week?

One of the policies that got the most attention during the Labour conference was the idea of a 4 day working week. Of course, this set off the barrage of accusations of fantasy politics, but what is now seen as a bit of a mad idea was once a mainstream view of the inevitable.

After the Industrial Revolution, workers found themselves working seven days a week and leisure time was seen as a virtue of the rich not to be wasted on the immoral poor. But, as technology and political will evolved, the working week shortened. Great industrialists like Henry Ford, the father of modern manufacturing, introduced five-day working weeks in his factories, calling the benefits to productivity of leisure time for his workers a cold business fact. The United States passed legislation enshrining the forty hour week and were boasting of having the shortest working week in the world.

John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, if politicians had not made disastrous mistakes (I know), mankind’s greatest challenge would be what to do with a sea of spare time and boredom, not working ourselves to death.

So what happened?

People like Keynes were wrong about their predictions but not about the reasons to believe it was very likely. The benefits of economic growth can provide more leisure time or more consumption, and from the mid 1850s to the 1980s we did get both, but since then it has generally just provided the latter.
Real incomes have stayed the same and there has been a huge increase in inequality, but our consumption bender has continued fuelled by credit, we have sacrificed time so we can buy more stuff.

The basic economic argument against a shorter working week is that people working less would get paid less, therefore the government would have to fund that shortfall in wages. But the argument that business would not be able to afford to pay workers the same wages for working less is flawed. It is a bit of an economic oxymoron, but people working less actually produce more, the ‘cold business fact’ that Henry Ford spoke of.

A wealth of studies point to a happier, well-rested, less stressed workforce making a business more productive, and so the profits from that increase in productivity can be used to maintain and increase wage levels.

So what can we do to make this a reality?

It shouldn’t be proposed as a cut to an arbitrary amount of days. Like so much with the Labour Party, they are old-fashioned and stale in their approach. The key to working less is to work flexibly. We can’t just suddenly cut the working week, we need a step-by-step approach, continuing to work for better provisions for childcare and parental leave and developing a more flexible retirement system.

It is also crucial we focus on regulating, not just attacking, the so-called ‘gig economy’.

We need to build on Jo Swinson’s conference speech about our strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to harness the benefits of technological progress for citizens and flesh out those policies.

Most importantly of all, we need to reinstate the need for more leisure time as a political ideal and work on the sound evidence of its benefits rather than dismissing it as unaffordable.

As the cost of work related stress to the NHS shows, we are working ourselves to death and so the question really should be, how can we afford NOT to shorten the working week?

* Darren Martin is the Press and Social Media Officer for the Hackney Lib Dems. He is a council candidate for next year's local elections.

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14 Comments

  • Peter Martin 15th Oct '18 - 2:03pm

    The point of this post needs to be understood in the context of two conflicting concerns that seem to trouble most Lib Dems. Firstly there’s the one about the robots coming to take all our jobs. Secondly there’s a worry that we won’t be able to run the NHS, or pick our own tomatoes, if we don’t have a steady inflow of EU workers!

    IF the robots are going to drive trucks and trains etc then it does make more sense to share the available work around rather than pay people what is known as a Unconditional Basic Income which is really quite a silly idea. Maybe we can have a shorter week and/or longer holidays too. It all makes good sense.

    It will actually help with employee retention in highly stressful jobs like teaching and nursing. A key reason why many people quit those jobs after a few years is that they just can’t take the strain any longer.

    We need to look at just how the job market works though. At present the system relies on having a pool of unemployed and underemployed workers. The threat of losing a job is used as a disciplinary measure to ensure a compliant and non complaining workforce. So whenever unemployment does look like it is too low it isn’t seen as a good thing by some politicians and bankers. They want to use that as reason to raise interest rates and cut Govt spending.

    They would rather have 4 workers on a 5 day week and have one worker unemployed, than 5 workers on 4 day week and no-one unemployed.

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/08/carney-should-heed-employment-experts-before-rate-decision

  • They tried this in France a while ago. They cut the standard working week to (I think) 35 hours in the hope that it would create demand for extra staff and so reduce unemployment. It didn’t, all that happened was that most French workers did the same work in 35 hours that they had been doing in 40. But now they have much higher productivity AND unemployment than us!

    This needs looking at in detail, but my concern is that there are some jobs where staff still need to be present, regardless of how productive they are e.g. Doctors, Nurses, carers, teachers, police etc.

    I’m such nurses and teachers would love a 4 days week, but you can’t really leave patients to fend for themselves in unstaffed wards, and unless pupils have a 4 day week too (popular with them, not so much with parents) how will schools operate?

    Of course you could say we will just recruit 25% more nurses and teachers to cover, but the pool of qualified staff just isn’t there even if you could afford it.

  • “John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, if politicians had not made disastrous mistakes (I know), mankind’s greatest challenge would be what to do with a sea of spare time and boredom, not working ourselves to death.”

    Great though Keynes may have been, he clearly didn’t foresee the internet!!!!

    Clearly the direction of travel is towards shorter working weeks/hours. Indeed those nasty capitalists need it so they can sell us goods/services for our leisure time. And indeed greater leisure time benefited Henry Ford in selling more cars as people used them to go motoring somewhere in their leisure time.

    We have moved from Saturday (for certainly most of the working class) being a working day to factories allowing Saturday afternoons off – partly why football matches where traditionally on Saturday afternoons – to the five day working week.

    I suspect – whisper it quietly – that Friday afternoons are not the most productive in most offices or that a great amount of learning takes place in schools on Friday afternoons! Of course making Friday part of the weekend might well move the problem to Thursdays! In which case my proposal is to have Wednesdays as the sole day of the working week :)!

    And I can also remember a lot of talk among politicians in the ’80s on how the working week would be drastically reduced – from memory I think Shirley Williams wrote about it in one of her books and I am not sure we have made a lot of progress.

    Some vaguely interesting internet links:
    https://www.theguardian.com/money/2011/apr/16/four-day-working-week
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/would-four-day-working-week-really-blessing/
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/15/sir-ian-mckellensgreat-great-grandfather-helped-invent-weekend/

  • Darren Martin 16th Oct '18 - 10:44am

    @Nick the France example is a good one and you are right, this needs to be looked at in detail. I would say, however, it proves one of the points of my article. I essentially am arguing for people working less but not through legislation directly cutting days and working hours. It needs to be done by investment in education for key skills, life-long learning, childcare provision, pat/Mat leave, and much more flexible retirement system as well as stronger regulation on technology driven flexible working, harnessing the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that Jo mentioned in her speech.
    It is then a choice to work less that people can afford.
    We also need to look at how employers are incentivised differently, the focus is on creating jobs for individuals rather than employment capacity that could be filled by multiple people. It costs employers more to hire more staff and that keeps wages low as costs are passed on.

  • Darren Marin 16th Oct '18 - 10:55am

    @Michael – Thanks for the links!
    I think unfortunately the direction of travel is not towards working less even though it should be. The potential benefits of technology are not trickling down to workers, if you consider how much time many of us spend ‘monitoring’ work using our phones or iPads then we are working much much more than we were 20 years ago.
    We need to give people some freedom back.
    One of the key things that Keynes did not forsee was women in the workforce and the impact on family life and work/life benefits. He was literally talking about MANkind having lots of leisure time. That’s why supporting families so they can work flexibly around a happy family life is so important.

  • @Darren Marin

    Thanks for the points and indeed your thanks!

    Of course the situation is complex. I think the very long-term trend is very clearly downwards. The 60-hour week is a thing of the past. Working Saturday mornings was quite common even 40 years ago. And of course before that those in service would probably have a half day off may be once a week or may be once a month.

    The situation for women has of course changed. Firstly of course the pill and contraception and the lowering of the birth rate has been major factor in improving their well-being. But for those doing housework, chores, cooking etc. – and 40 or so years ago it was predominately women has seen a major increase in labour saving devices, washing machines – even microwaves and ready meals, supermarket delivery services, internet banking etc. etc.

    I appreciate the point about email and the internet meaning people always being at work. And it is a valid point. But I would gently suggest that people also use it at work to do personal things – a bit of internet shopping, replying to personal texts, emails etc. And of course for some it enables flexibility to fit in with family responsibilities and for others to escape work earlier. I would suggest that in the past managers and other middle class jobs have taken reports to read and written work to do at home and indeed be productive on the commute into work.

    And part of the picture is also the amount of commuting from and to work (although modern technology opens this up to a whole raft of possibilities not available before) and the amount of unpaid “work” people have to do at home in organising their family and personal life.

  • David Evans 16th Oct '18 - 1:00pm

    Darren, I just came back form a break in South Korea – you should see how hard those guys and gals work. Then there is the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Indonesians, Indians etc. Resources are getting in ever shorter supply and our economy is now drifting downwards compared to the rest and then there is Brexit …

    I’m afraid the article is just another of those “Wouldn’t it be nice if articles LDV is so fond of. Unless of course you can get all the big multinationals to pay their fair share of tax to the UK 🙂

  • Peter Watson 16th Oct '18 - 1:19pm

    @Michael 1 “I would gently suggest that people also use it at work to do personal things – a bit of internet shopping, replying to personal texts, emails etc.”
    I hope nobody pays attention to the time stamps of posts on this site … 🙁

  • Darren Martin 16th Oct '18 - 2:36pm

    @David Policy areas that seek to better the lives of individuals in new ways are indeed nice to have, and policies once dismissed as outlandish are now taken as a given. We should always try and strive to find answers especially in periods of great change.
    And the very core of this issue is quality of life and freedom of the individual, do the countries you mention above have a much better quality of life than us? It isn’t just about productivity, need to revevaluate what we value, I talk about this here https://www.libdemvoice.org/what-you-see-and-what-you-dont-see-time-to-ditch-gdp-and-measure-our-progress-differently-55337.html and we should not be dismissive of the opportunities for us all in the future.

  • David Evans 16th Oct '18 - 5:54pm

    Darren, We are now in a position where the current generation are likely to be the first in centuries to be worse off economically than the previous one. That is one of the drivers for the discontent out there. Past affluence and a willingness to take it through taxation from the rich is why policies once dismissed as outlandish are now a given, but times have changed, and not in a direction that supports your hypothesis.

    Your pension is almost certainly going to be worse than mine by a very substantial amount. We are now at a stage where life expectancy is on the cusp of falling for the first time in centuries. If Brexit is as bad as looks likely, employment will fall and wages with it.

    Liberal progress is made hand in hand with economic progress, coupled with the willingness of the political class to extract more from those who are doing extremely well. The Liberals did that in the early 1900s. Labour did it after the war and in the 1960s and 70s. Since then it has been a steady Conservative erosion of those gains (and I include many of the Blair years and the coalition in that). Conservatives love wellbeing measures because it takes some of the pressure off wages (that is why Cameron supported it).

    What we need is a plan to get relevant, noticed and elected. You may want to re-evaluate what *we value*, but if you ask people what *they value*, you will find cash comes very, very high indeed. Until you can get people to change their minds fundamentally, it will fall at the first hurdle and so will remain a “Wouldn’t it be nice if …” because we won’t get elected to even start to change things.

  • Darren Martin 16th Oct '18 - 8:53pm

    @David You are right about the current prospects for this generation. Stagnant wages, underemployment, lack of job security, low economic growth.
    But, although my article is about getting back time, I’m proposing addressing this by looking at the very things you have highlighted in your comments.
    Forgive me for the cliche, but time is money, and by addressing certain areas on a sound economic basis we can trade it off in increments.
    As my article points out, there are many studies that show either improvement in productivity from working less or a decrease in productivity from working too much.
    I have also talked about investment in education, life-long learning, better parental leave and childcare provision, retirement flexibility amongst other things. This provides a social safety net for workers to be able to choose to work less if they wish. And in the period of change I would argue this is a necessity and not just a nice to have.
    By the way, those are all popular policies in their own right, and more free time is also very popular, so I would argue they are not only the right things to be talking about but will also be electorally popular.

  • A wag once commented “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

    In 1798 Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would bring famine and poverty as the number of mouths to feed outstripped the capacity of the land to feed the increased population. World population today is 7.6 billion and expected to reach over 10 billion by mid-century.
    Karl Marx thought that overproduction was endemic to capitalism because the proletariat isn’t paid enough to buy the stuff that the capitalists produce. The central paradox that Marx emphasized, “namely, that its own colossal productivity would bring capitalism to its knees, by making socialism followed by communism both materially possible and logically necessary” has turned out to be false.

    Keynes saw that technological advances would enable us to produce all we could possibly need in a fraction of the time and cost that was possible in his day. He had not reckoned with the possibility of throwaway society or that we would need to start the day with a £3 cup of coffee, drink tap water from a plastic bottle instead of a glass, need more clothes than we can wear or gadgets that we usefully use or that schoolkids would consider themselves the victim of abuse if they didn’t have an Apple ifone.

    Henry George George saw how technological and social advances (including education and public services) increased the value of land (natural resources, urban locations, etc.) and, thus, the amount of wealth that can be demanded by the owners of land from those who need the use of land. In other words: the better the public services, the higher the rent is (as more people value that land). The tendency of speculators to increase the price of land faster than wealth can be produced to pay has the result of lowering the amount of wealth left over for labour to claim in wages, and finally leads to the collapse of enterprises at the margin, with a ripple effect that becomes a serious business depression entailing widespread unemployment, foreclosures, etc. It is was we call a property bubble and collapse and has been at the heart of every serious recession since the advent of the industrial revolution.

    Therein lies the answer – capturing increases in land values to fund the public services that underpin the economic growth that creates the increased land values in the first place.

  • David Evans 17th Oct '18 - 8:00am

    Darren, I acknowledge what you have said and the prevalence of academic studies supporting it, but they only address the intellectual side of the argument.

    We all know that Universal Credit is a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t face up to the problems in the real world and so is a total failure. It is popular with people like the Conservatives who can’t understand why people on benefits are not more like them who can manage their money, their time and their lives so easily, and economic liberals who couldn’t see how difficult it is to transition from the reality of the here and now to the wonderful world of their view of perfection.

    The simple fact is that for so many, life is a bind of earning enough money in the time available, not one of I would like more time off and less money please. Your proposal would be easy to attack from the rich, (Who will pay for this?), and from the poor (I need more money to live on, how do I earn it?).

    Also, I am afraid several of your points do not stack up. Indeed there are “many studies that show either improvement in productivity from working less or a decrease in productivity from working too much,” but there have been studies like that since the 1970s, if not earlier. However, none of them really address the fundamental problem that for many people reducing what is done to become more efficient does release time but also significantly reduces earnings.

    Retirement flexibility is a fig leaf to cover for We haven’t got a clue how to solve the Pensions crisis. Parental leave is great so long as you are prepared to accept that only parents get it, and better childcare is a mechanism to make it easier for people to work more and not take time off to look after their children! The very opposite of what you are promoting, unless of course you are suggesting that some people are very inefficient at being parents and so need to remove that from their task portfolio to become more efficient!!

    As I said, the fundamental point is getting the money to do this, and that involves getting the megarich and the big multinationals to pay their fair share of tax to the UK. Now if you could get all the Tax advisers at KPMG, Amazon, Starbucks, Google etc to cut their hours to zero, that would be benefit of your proposals! 🙂

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