By Gwynne Dyer
As countries in Europe and North America emerge from lock-down and start trying to rebuild their devastated economies, the great concern is jobs.
Unemployment in the US and Canada is over 13%, a post-Second World War high. If it weren’t for subsidies that keep up to a fifth of the working population on paid ‘furloughs’ from their jobs, jobless rates in Europe would be as high. That can’t go on forever, so there is a frantic search for job-saving strategies – and the ‘four-day work week’ keeps coming up.
Like that other proposed magic bullet, the guaranteed basic income, the notion of a four-day working week has been around for a long time. The current emergency has given both ideas a second wind, and neither is nearly as radical or extreme as it sounds.
Less than a century ago the whole industrialised world transitioned from the traditional six-day working week (Saturdays included) to a five-day work-week, for the same pay. So why don’t we do that again, spread the work around, and save lots of jobs?
Because it doesn’t work like that. The four-day week is about finding ways for people to work ‘smarter’ so that they can squeeze their work into only four 8-hour days instead of five, or to do the same amount of work in four 10-hour working days instead of five 8-hour days.
The latter option is the only one available for most process workers doing repetitive physical tasks. Ten-hour workdays are hard, but the prize is a three-day weekend and some people are willing to pay the price.
It does make for a happier workforce, by all accounts, and maybe therefore a more efficient one. There are already examples of this kind of four-day working in every industrial country
The four-day week is an easier and more attractive package for people in administrative and sales jobs, because everybody knows there is a lot of wasted time in office work: social media, pointless emails, long meetings, etc.
You could get the job done a lot quicker if everybody was motivated to concentrate on the bits that are actually useful and skip the rest.
So motivate them. Tell them that they can drop to four 8-hour days a week for the same pay as the old five days if they still get the work done – and leave it to them to figure out how. Miraculously, they almost always do manage to find the time.
In many cases, productivity actually rises. The four-day week is an excellent idea whose time may finally have come, but it is not a magic bullet. Companies don’t ever hire more people just to spread the work around.
The coronavirus is only an accelerator. The real problem with employment ever since the 1990s has been automation, which has been eating up good jobs and excreting low-paid, insecure ones instead – or none at all. Six million good manufacturing jobs were automated out of existence in the US in 2000-2010, which led fairly directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
The current pandemic is speeding the process by driving more jobs online, especially in sales (a different kind of automation), and fiddling with working hours or minimum wages is not going to stop it. So what’s left? Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help, but that’s a discussion for another day.