Thoughts on four-day workweeks

I keep meaning to note that discussions of 4-day workweeks are sometimes a little confusing because different people are talking about different models.

For example, the kind of schedule they’re referring to could be any of the following:

  • 4 days, 8 hours a day.
  • 4 days, 10 hours a day.
  • 32 hours, distributed in various ways.

And I think all the proposals I’ve heard about keep salaried pay the same; but of course if hourly pay stays the same, then working fewer hours in a week means making less money.

And there’s the further question of productivity. Different people might focus on any of the following:

  • Do the same amount of weekly work that you currently do in 40 hours, but do it faster so you get it done in 32 hours.
  • Do the same amount of hourly work that you currently do, so you get less done in a week.
  • A sort of in-between framing: the idea that people tend to be more productive when they don’t have to work as much.

(I worry that some of the approaches people talk about could involve reducing the amount of “unproductive” time, like coffee breaks and bathroom breaks and casual friendly hellos, and therefore making work more unpleasant and stressful and tiring and unhealthy.)

Anyway, for me, the main point is to reduce the amount of time and energy that people have to spend working in order to live comfortably and happily.

But for me, it’s also about a cultural shift.

So when I’m thinking about what a 4-day-standard workweek might look like, I try to think about it not in terms of comparing productivity to 5-day productivity, but in terms of how people would feel about it after it becomes standard.

And as usual, I think it’s worth looking at the transition we’ve already been through, the shift to a 5-day workweek. These days, we don’t say “The 5-day/40-hour workweek is a failure because workers aren’t as productive as they were in the 6-day/70-hour workweek! We have to go back!” We don’t even say “The 5-day/40-hour workweek is a success because workers are just as productive as they were in the 6-day/70-hour workweek!” Instead, we take 5 days and 40 hours for granted as the standard. The comparison to productivity under a 6-day/70-hour workweek is largely irrelevant.

And similarly, if we shifted to a 4-day/32-hour standard, it seems likely to me that within a decade or two we would no longer focus on comparing productivity with 5-day/40-hour productivity. We would take 4 days and 32 hours for granted as a cultural standard.

All of which I guess is another way of saying something I’ve said before: there’s nothing magical about 5 days or 40 hours; that’s not the Platonic Ideal of How Work Should Be. That’s just our current cultural standard. The standard changed significantly in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, and we could change it again.

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