After the first world war, workers wanted a peace dividend for their sacrifices. Within three years they got it. Almost every industrialised nation – with the exception of Japan – accepted the newly established International Labour Organization’s call to limit working hours to eight a day and 48 a week. While most developed countries enacted legislation to achieve these aims, Britain, along with the United States and Italy, did so through collective agreements.
Today, the triple crises of Covid, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Brexit will create job-altering shocks. Employers are already implementing remote working. Some workers, perhaps those with comfortable homes, prefer online messaging to water cooler chats and web conference calls to in-person ones. Others, meanwhile, are opting out of work altogether. From Monday, thousands of workers in 70 UK companies will be paid the same wages for a four-day working week as a five-day one. Like an eight-hour day in 1919, workers are demanding changes once regarded as fringe, eccentric ideas.
There are good arguments for a four-day week. Studies suggest improvements in workers’ happiness and improvements in productivity. The UK has for too long fostered a working culture that encourages long hours and employee exhaustion. About 10 million people – almost one in three people in work – would work fewer hours if they could. Remarkably, 3 million of them would take fewer hours even with a loss in pay.
Having to work less hard for a desired income is obviously welcome. But such a desirable outcome is complicated by factors such as the pressure to consume, security of employment and inequalities of power and income. Given the prevalence of in-work poverty, and with inflation hitting those on lowest incomes the hardest, many British workers cannot afford to cut their hours.
In 2019, the economist Lord Skidelsky considered the problem in detail for the Labour party. His report compared how European countries had managed to make employment more compatible with wellbeing. He noted, with approval, how collective bargaining in Germany had seen workers receive real wage increases and reductions in working hours in return for improved productivity. He rejected a French-style legislated national limit, noting that it broke down within a few years.
The peer’s insight was that the economic security and rights of UK workers had to be improved so that they were in “a position to decrease their working hours voluntarily should they wish to”. In the modern age, it is clear that the market cannot provide continuous full employment. That is why Lord Skidelsky advocated for a new role for the government as an “employer of last resort”, by guaranteeing jobs paying the living wage to the unemployed who cannot find work in the private sector.
By providing an alternative to the market, argued the peer, the state would gain a powerful lever to push down the average number of hours worked. Lord Skidelsky thought that a 35-hour working week in the public sector over 10 years was achievable with the right policies. Britain’s experience a century ago is worth recalling. The loss in output from cutting working time was largely offset by increased hourly productivity. The shorter day led to the growth of leisure and consumer industries. Currently, the financial logic that governs the rules of employment is inimical to reducing workloads. What is needed are countervailing institutions to push society in the technologically possible direction desired by most people.