In times of economic crisis, an old but good idea to maintain employment is revived. COVID has brought just such a revival. With unemployment in the UK expected to rise rapidly in the coming months as the British furlough scheme winds down, a think tank has reported that a four-day work week in the public sector would create up to half a million new jobs. The think tank, Autonomy, says it would be possible for public sector workers to go on a 32-hour week with no loss of pay. The cost would be between £5.4 and £9-billion a year.

Autonomy’s research director claims: “The time has come for a four-day working week and the public sector should act as the pioneer for it, both as employer and as procurer of services. The four-day week … would boost productivity, create new jobs and make us all much happier and healthier.”

Reducing work hours has been one of the major gains of workers since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Early in the 19th century, people worked on average about 3600 hours a year—70 or 80-hour work weeks. Since then, workers have struggled to reduce working hours to a level compatible with the increasing ability of machines to do our work for us, to 60 hours a week early in the 20th century and to 40 by the 1960s. Despite working less, we prospered more, by replacing manpower with machine power.

Since the 1960s, however, despite extraordinary technological innovation, the average work week has hardly changed at all. Indeed, we are working harder than ever. In 1960, 70 per cent of families consisted of two adults with one working full time outside the home, the other full time inside the home — two people, two jobs. Today, in most two-parent families, even those with small children, both parents work outside the home. But the home work still has to be done, so the situation now is two people with three jobs, or in the case of single-parent families, one person with two jobs.

Our challenge during the current crisis is to increase time for the overemployed and increase work for the underemployed to create a balance of meaningful work for all. In other words, share the work. We can do this in various ways. Longer holidays, reducing overtime, mandating a four-day work week, are all possibilities.

The French, Germans and Scandinavians already work far fewer hours per year than North Americans do, yet enjoy a comparable prosperity. And of course they have more time for family, recreation, politics—whatever—to live fuller lives.

As far back as 1930, W. K. Kellogg, a truly visionary capitalist, went to a thirty-hour week by shortening the work day in his plants from eight hours to six in order to save jobs. Kellogg was later able to say, “The efficiency and morale of our employees is so increased, the accident and insurance rates are so improved, and the unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight.” Kellogg’s idea would be overdue today even if we weren’t in the middle of an economic meltdown.

So far during the pandemic, everything in the federal budget has been about spending more—much, much more. And that has been necessary to keep as many people as possible receiving an income. But we need also to hear about working less to keep as many people as possible employed. 

As we approach a new Parliament, the Prime Minister has declared “We are asking Canadians to embark on an entirely different direction.” His ministers have recently been quite generous in offering access to labour leaders, so that direction could well see positive policies for workers. What a pleasant surprise if the Throne speech on the 23rd pointed us in the direction of shorter work times.

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