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Why it's time for a three-day working week in 2022

Over decades, productivity has risen while wages have stagnated, and work pressures have intensified. Is now the time for change?

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose teachings inspired the post-WW2 recovery, made a prediction. In his essay, titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he claimed there was a new disease at the time, called technological unemployment. He defined this as unemployment caused by humanity’s discovery of the means of economising the use of labour, outrunning the pace at which we can find uses for labour. 

Keynes called this a temporary phase of maladjustment, as, in the long run, it meant that mankind was solving its “economic problem”. In one hundred years, he added, the standard of life in progressive countries would be four-to-eight times as high as it was at the time.

Keynes imagined the biggest problem, in the future, would be how people used their freedom from economic anxieties, arguing we would perhaps need to do some kind of work simply to remain content. “Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while,” he wrote. “For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam [evil or reckless side of human nature] in most of us!” 

John Maynard Keynes portrait photograph

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The work of Keynes has inspired calls for a shorter working week

So, whatever happened to this dream? While UK labour productivity per worker has nearly tripled between 1959 and 2008 (before falling following the financial crash), the average working week has remained constant, with employees working roughly 37 hours per week since 1992. Much has been made, meanwhile, of stagnant wages in the last few decades, with pay barely keeping pace with inflation.

Against this backdrop, new technologies have emerged. When businesses first adopted computers, workers had to quickly learn how to type and navigate a mysterious operating system, otherwise they would be at risk of falling behind. Now, though, we’re expected to learn how to use collaboration platforms at the drop of a hat while contending with fears that AI-powered software could be tracking our every click to placate our paranoid managers.

Here’s a simple proposition: let’s work a three-day week beginning next year. The rise of technology has boosted workers’ productivity and allowed businesses to grow at extraordinary rates, while funnelling profits into the pockets of an ever-growing number of people. Taking this into account, why shouldn’t workers spend less time at their desks, and more time actually enjoying their lives?

Just imagine a world without the pandemic, for instance. Every single worker that now enjoys the benefits of remote or hybrid working would still be shackled to a desk at an office five days a week. That’s right, we would still be commuting for hours every day, with the reward of one day working from home, as a treat, depending on how kind your business felt. And – let me be clear – we would certainly have the technology to be able to implement remote working, but wouldn’t do so. Who knows how long it would have been, if ever, before we would formally adopt hybrid working patterns? Let’s put to one side the clear business benefits such arrangements bring.

Even now, in the last two years, we’ve seen the government ushering us back into the office as fast as possible. It may have something to do with appeasing property developers instead of employee wellbeing, but, nevertheless, it’s taking us backwards when so many of us know, and have demonstrated, we can do our jobs perfectly well from home.

This systemic change of permanently reducing our working hours isn’t likely to come as a result of a future pandemic. This needs to be driven by workers, and businesses. Why not, therefore, kickstart this in the IT sector, and show the world that we can lead the way and spearhead the future of work? All the available evidence, too, suggests reducing working hours doesn’t lead to productivity losses. This is why, as with any kind of negotiation, we should be asking to work for three days a week, as, in the end, it’ll mean we’re likely to be offered four – which is certainly better than the status quo.

Picturesque scenery in Iceland

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Four-day working week trials have been a resounding success in Iceland

Looking forward, there’s also the argument for us to end our fixation with measuring GDP in current terms. Some economists say that this conceptual framework isn’t fit to measure a modern economy, especially in light of social and environmental outcomes that determine our long-term wellbeing and the sustainability of our planet.

In this current vicious circle, productivity has gone up, wages have gone down, workers are working just as hard, or even harder in many cases, while billionaires laugh all the way to space. In the end, after all, GDP, productivity, and the stock market won’t matter once the world is irreparably on fire. The only people able to fulfil Keynes’ prediction are those with the wealth to do so; free from the nine-to-five and able to pursue their dreams, or dedicate their lives to “helping” the country by playing politics. 

During the post-WW2 economic recovery, policy makers had to make bold decisions about how to reorganise the economy to boost living standards. Due to the pandemic, some say we have returned to a form of Keynesian economics given the vast sums of money we’re spending on schemes like furlough, puzzlingly, by a political party that has long-championed austerity. Once the pandemic ends, let’s get out on the front foot and usher in a permanent change, beginning with a reduction in the amount of hours we’re expected to work. 

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