“Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
So goes the famous proclamation of social reform activist Robert Owens, delivered all the way back in 1817. The famous proclamation that established the 40-hour work week; that staple schedule of workplaces all around the world.
Here’s the thing though: it wasn’t based on any kind of scientific research. Owens wasn’t saying that eight hours should be standard, he was saying eight hours should be the maximum amount an individual should work each day to preserve their health.
At the time, workers were labouring 12-16 hours a day, six days a week in the fields and factories, and it was literally killing them.
The introduction of unions, and establishment of workers’ rights went a long way in abolishing the issue and boosting productivity, but somewhere along the way, the 40-hour work week became a global standard.
It’s a question rarely put to a tradition that seems relatively harmless. But much has changed since 1817. And much is still changing. So now is the time to be asking whether, as we approach a revolutionary new age of work, the 40-hour work week should remain.
Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale thinks the answer is a resounding no. At a speech to the National Press Club earlier this year, he highlighted the need to redefine the concept of an optimal work week.
“We want to kick off a conversation about the future of work and start by questioning the entrenched political consensus that a good life can only come from more work.”
“A four-day work week, or a six-hour day might actually make us happier and create more opportunities for others,” he declared, citing research that found 16% of Australians want to work more hours in a week, while 25% want to work less.
Di Natale is hardly the first to propose such profound changes. In 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes spoke of a 15-hour work week. Keynes was keenly aware that technology was being developed at such a rate that humans would eventually be able to ‘liberate’ themselves from work. He considered this reason to celebrate and, in fact, thought working at all would only be necessary for those who wanted to satiate “old Adam” – the compulsion to remain active and relevant that lies within many of us.
“We shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible.”
Although, nearly a century later, the 15-hour work week has yet to eventuate, many companies around the world are starting to make a shift towards it.
In Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, most businesses have transitioned to a 6-hour work day. The local Toyota plant made the change in 2003, moving from one nine-hour shift to two six-hour shifts a day. In that time, profits have risen 25%, even with the two teams being paid full wages.
For other businesses, the change has been less to their liking. A retirement home that experimented with shorter work days spent an additional 22% on wages, and declared the system “too expensive”.
It’s here that the greatest challenge to a reduced work week arises: cost.
There is general concern that a broad move to shorter work weeks will trigger a rise in underemployment: a trend that’s seen part-time employment rise while full-time roles decline. If employees working for less than eight hours a day are declared part-time workers, and paid less as a result, social disparity threatens to send a rift through the workforce, and the economy.
Worse still is the fear that a call for businesses to pay full-time rates for workers on reduced hours might drive those in charge to automate their workforce sooner than the country can prepare to deal with the unemployment.
What’s needed, says Di Natale, is a social security net like Finland’s Universal Basic Income program that will ensure workers swept up in the revolution land on their feet.
Such a proposal is sure to draw the ire of both major parties, but Di Natale concedes that his speech was designed to “kick off a conversation” rather than define a solid plan.
In any case, something must be done. Australia is not prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Nor is the rest of the world. Experts look to history and are quick to remind us that in times of revolution in the workforce, those displaced have found a way to carry on. But this is different, and it affects everyone.
If a shorter work week can ensure balance, purpose, security, and a sense of relevancy (both in and out of the workplace) in the face of such change, now is the time for your business to start seriously considering it.