As the pandemic continues to batter the economy and unemployment increases, it’s time to take yet another look at an approach to work that will maintain high employment while improving quality of life—shorter work times.

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 percent 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 (at least when we’re not experiencing a pandemic). 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.

The challenge 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, mandating a four-day work week being one of them.

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.

Now a group of European politicians and union leaders has proposed a four-day work week with no loss of pay as one approach to help economies recover from the pandemic. As an added benefit, they suggest it will also reduce energy use, helping to tackle global warming.

Some small British firms have already switched over to a four-day work week, offering employees three days off per week with no loss in pay. Supporters claim the switch has increased morale and energy levels leading to increased productivity. The owner of one firm said her people had used the time to volunteer, look after dependent family members and teach. The founder of a firm in New Zealand involved in a pilot study of the idea claims it resulted in a 20 percent increase in productivity, increased profits and improved staff wellbeing. Higher productivity compliments a better balance between life and work.

Dealing economically with the pandemic has so far been about governments spending more—much, much more. And that has been necessary to ensure as many people as possible continue to receive an income. But we need also to hear about working less to keep as many people as possible employed.

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