Trials of the 4-day workweek have become increasingly common in recent years. Now, some governments are starting to legally incentivize this cutting-edge idea. At a time when so much workplace policy is dictated by private entities, it’s striking how much of the shift to the 4-day workweek (4DWW) is being driven by public institutions, not to mention the workers themselves. How did this interest in the shorter week come about, and who is campaigning for its adoption? Welcome to the Jungle takes a deep dive into what changing the workweek means to various parties:
Where it all began: influences through Western history
Medieval times: A peasant’s day was filled with grueling tasks unless they had time off. They toiled from dawn to dusk, depending on the season, which could be up to 16 hours on summer days and as little as eight hours in winter. That wasn’t as bad as it might sound, though, as they could have between eight and 21 weeks off in a year. Their workdays were punctuated by long breaks for meals, and productivity wasn’t an issue. According to cultural economist Lynn Parramore, “The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays.”
Industrialization: Many historians believe that as automation expanded, so did working hours. By the mid-1800s, American manufacturing employees were working about 70 hours a week: 12 hours a day, six days a week. One theory is that a new reliance on technology reduced the need for work hours to follow the rhythms of nature. Sundays remained the big day of rest, but over the century, Saturdays were incorporated into the weekend too – first as a compromise with English workers, who often skipped Mondays to nurse their hangovers, then to accommodate Jewish workers in American factories. After slavery ended, trade unions were concerned employers would exploit the newly freed workers, who would also undercut wages. So they began to push for an 8:8:8 workday: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.”
The 20th century: The eight-hour day gained traction at the end of World War I as the demand for workers increased. The US lifted wartime restrictions and began producing and consuming more. But the pivotal moment came when American industrialist Henry Ford ran a trial of a 40-hour, five-day week in his car factories. While Ford’s employees had been used to working longer hours, Ford found the new schedule increased productivity and gave his workers more time to spend their money. Soon, other major businesses adopted this schedule and, in 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that companies pay overtime to employees working beyond the standard 40 hours per week, barring exempt workers.
Who’s pushing the 4DWW today?
Since the beginning of this century, there have been sporadic government-led initiatives around the 4-day workweek. In 2008, Utah’s government workers trialed working four 10-hour days to help the state save money on energy. While 70% of the employees wanted to keep the arrangement, it didn’t cut costs enough and was eventually scrapped. In 2013, the Gambian government instated a 4-day workweek throughout the country. “This new arrangement will allow Gambians to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture – going back to the land to grow what we eat and eat what we grow for a healthy and wealthy nation,” according to the presidential statement. Gambian trade unions opposed the move, fearing it would harm an already weak economy, and Fridays were added back in as half-days after a change in power in 2017. “Now we have rejoined the civilized world,” one trader told the BBC by phone.
But the current hubbub over the 4-day workweek began with the private sector. In 2018, New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian tried out – and eventually adopted – the new schedule, aiming for the 100-800-100 rule: workers keep earning 100% of their income for working 80% of their usual hours, but keeping 100% productivity. The unusual company policy made international waves, catching the attention of the then prime minister of New Zealand and the World Economic Forum. Multinational corporations fighting for talent took particular note, with Microsoft Japan conducting its own experiment the following year. It found that productivity jumped 40% and electricity costs fell 23%.
Perpetual Guardian’s founder, Andrew Barnes, was so bombarded with requests for advice on the topic of the 4DWW that he set up 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit organization, to do just that. Claims that the shorter workweek could help solve policy issues ranging from the gender wage gap to pollution to public health interested politicians and legislators, and nationwide trials within private firms assisted by 4 Day Week Global began. Other governments also ran independent initiatives. Here’s how some of these programs have gone so far:
- In February 2022, Belgium became the first European government to legislate for a 4-day workweek. But unlike pilot runs in other countries, employees simply have the right to work longer hours over fewer days, not fewer hours overall.
- Workers may also vary the number of days they work each week, allowing parents to distribute caretaking responsibilities more evenly.
- The government hopes it will loosen up the labor market. “If you compare our country with others, you’ll often see we’re far less dynamic,” said prime minister Alexander de Croo.
- So far, few Belgians – one study estimates 0.8% – have taken advantage of the new arrangement, although it’s the preferred schedule of employees in their 20s. The slow adoption could be attributed to the learning curve businesses must undergo to implement a 4-day workweek.
- From June to December 2022, the United Kingdom, assisted by 4 Day Week Global, underwent the world’s largest trial with nearly 3,000 employees at 61 companies.
- The trial was hailed as a huge success, with 56 companies continuing the experiment after the trial ended and 18 making it permanent.
- The government has instated the Flexible Working Bill, which will take effect in July 2025. It gives employees the right to make two flexible working requests a year, which could be any type of change in hours or scheduling, and requires that the employer consider and discuss requests within two months.
- In 2021, Japan’s government recommended that companies adopt a 4-day workweek to encourage spending and socialization as the pandemic subsided.
- Major Japanese corporations, such as Panasonic, followed suit, with 8.6% of private companies offering more than two days off per week.
- Public sector workers with family members to care for are allowed to compress their 38-hour week into four days. This year, the government started to consider expanding this right to other civil servants, depending on the role, to attract more job applicants.
In the US, House representatives in states such as California, Massachusetts and Delaware have pushed legislation for a shorter week, often involving tax incentives for private companies that offer a three-day weekend. The American private sector – which generally has a bigger influence on changes in the working world than the government – has begun to adopt the 4-day workweek. But from manufacturing to retail, it seems the secret to success lies in creating a schedule that’s tailored to the company’s needs rather than following broad government guidelines. Chick-fil-A, for example, found that a three-day week with 13- to 14-hour shifts was better suited to fast-food operations.
What about the workers?
While some prefer to spread their working hours over five days, there has been significant backing from others for a shorter week:
- The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has been bargaining for a shorter workweek. Other American workers may be behind them: one Morning Consult survey found 82% of employed adults think widespread adoption would be successful, and a Bankrate report says it’s more popular than remote and hybrid work among full-time workers.
- An influential steelworker’s union in Germany has also called for a 4-day workweek in its negotiations.
- The Australian Services Union won the right to a 4-day workweek this year.
- A 2023 report from Indeed found that two-thirds of UK workers would take a pay cut for a 4-day workweek.
Rather than being driven by one influential lobby group, the 4DWW’s popularity spans the whole labor ecosystem. In the same way the Church recognized peasants’ needs for rest, and 19th-century industrial companies accommodated some workers’ lifestyles, even today’s most productivity-hungry corporations are only as strong as their healthiest workers. Since the pandemic changed how we show up at work, democratically elected governments responsible for the healthy functioning of society have been focusing on better ways of working. And today’s employees are demanding more rest and time away from work. The 4DWW claims to provide all these advantages, but many more weeks of trial, error and collaboration lie ahead.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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