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The University of QueenslandCould a four-day work week become reality?

Could a four-day work week become reality?

Image: ina9/Adobe Stock

A research team is exploring the viability of a four-day work week following the success of trials in Europe. UQ's Professor John Quiggin discusses the factors that could turn this white-collar dream into a reality.

Why do we have a five-day work week?

In 1856, Melbourne stonemasons were among the first workers in the world to achieve an eight-hour working day (although, as with many other Aussie achievements, New Zealand claims to have got there first). This event is still commemorated in Tasmania, where the Labour Day holiday is called 'Eight Hours Day'. 

Over the next 100 years and more, standard working hours slowly but steadily reduced.

By 1948, the working week had been cut from six days to five, bringing us that great boon, the weekend.

And, thanks to steady increases in productivity, all this was achieved alongside continually improving living standards.

Although the standard work week remained fixed at five days, increases in leisure continued until the late 20th century. Annual leave was introduced, increasing to four weeks a year in the 1970s. Sick leave, long service leave, and an increased number of public holidays all contributed to a reduction in the number of hours worked per year.

Finally, in 1981, weekly working hours were cut from 40 to 38.

Some unionised workers in industries such as construction were able to negotiate slightly shorter hours, allowing them to work a nine-day fortnight. This typically involved working days of about eight hours for a total of 72 hours a fortnight, or 36 hours in an average work week. That’s the same number of hours per day as in the 19th century, but around two-thirds the number of days work in a year.

All this progress came to a halt, however, with the era of microeconomic reform (often called neoliberalism), which began in the 1980s.

No significant reduction in standard hours has occurred since then. The actual number of hours worked has ebbed and flowed according to the state of the labour market, but without any clear trend.

Employers have consistently favoured longer work hours for their core full-time workforce, while workers and unions have pushed for better work-life balance.

Time for a change?

The disruption created by the COVID-19 pandemic has led many of us to reconsider our relationship to work, and one manifestation has been renewed interest in the idea of a four-day working week. Some innovative companies have already adopted a four-day week, and many others are now considering it.

The most notable initiative has come from 4DayWeek Global, a not-for-profit community established following a successful program launched in 2018 at Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trustee and philanthropic organisation. 4DayWeek Global, is launching a series of pilot programs in the US, UK, Canada and, most recently, Australia.

As part of the pilot program, a research team will examine the experience of workers and employers trialling the four-day week. The team is led by Professor Juliet Schor of Boston College, author of The Overworked American and a leading global authority on trends in working time. Australian research will be led by Professor John Buchanan (University of Sydney) and myself, Professor John Quiggin (UQ).

Professor John Quiggin

The research will examine whether the benefits of a four-day week, including increased productivity during working hours, greater employee satisfaction and worker retention, outweigh the costs of working one day less each week.

Assuming the trials establish that a four-day week is feasible, more detailed questions would remain to be resolved. 

Would we choose to extend the weekend to three days, or stay with a five-day week, with different workers having different rostered days off? Or perhaps, stick with a core week from Tuesday to Thursday, and alternate between Mondays and Fridays off?

Would there be even more pressure than there is already to deal with work-related demands on notional days off? Would schools continue to operate five days a week? How would working from home fit in? All of these problems, and more, would complicate the shift to a four-day week.

The real question though, 70 years after the arrival of the weekend, is whether we are ready to convert some of our increased productivity into a life with more free time for family, friends and fun, or whether we want to keep on working for more and more goods, and the bigger houses we need to make room for them.

 

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