the economy

The 4-Day Week Is for White-collar Workers

Photo: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag

Ninety-three years ago, John Maynard Keynes made a pair of predictions about economic life in the year 2030. First, the British economist argued that the miracle of compounding economic growth would by then render “the standard of life in progressive counties” between “four and eight times as high as it is today.” Second, as a result of this vast expansion in productive capacity, people would devote a mere fraction of their lives to serving an employer. With robots shrinking the pool of necessary human labor, people would likely work “three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week.” The burdens of poverty and burnout would go the way of the subsistence farmer. In their absence, man (in the gendered vernacular of the day) would finally be faced with “his real, permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Keynes got the first part right. America’s per capita income is roughly 7.5 times higher today than it was in 1930. Depending on how the rest of this decade plays out, he may have actually underestimated how wealthy the United States would be in 2030. But his intuition about how this massive gain in living standards would impact working hours proved utterly false.

The average U.S. laborer works just 1.9 fewer hours a week in 2023 than they did in 1950. Meanwhile, thanks to the mass entrance of women into the labor force, the number of hours worked per working-age American actually increased between 1977 and today. Our collective wealth outstrips our great-grandparents’ wildest dreams. Yet the proportion of our lives devoted to ends of our own choosing has scarcely grown in seven decades.

U.S. trade unions and progressives have long sought to change this. And judging by recent headlines, they’re finally making progress. Time magazine recently looked into “Why 2023 Could Finally Be the Year of the 4-Day Workweek,” while The Wall Street Journal asked itself, “Is the Four-Day Week the Future of Work?” and the New York Times wondered, “Is the Four-Day Workweek Finally Within Our Grasp?”

A series of pilot studies, in which firms experimented with a four-day week for six months, lies behind this buzz. With the help of the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, 33 companies in the U.S. and Ireland gave a shorter workweek a shot last year — which is to say the firms kept their workers’ pay constant while slashing their working hours. Most companies found that making a bit more time for Keynes’s “permanent problem” was good for both employee morale and profitability. Over the course of the experiment, firms saw revenue climb by 8 percent, a 38 percent advance relative to the same period a year earlier. Meanwhile, 67 percent of workers reported being less “burned out” at the experiment’s end as their overall levels of sleep and exercise increased. Some 97 percent of employees said they wished to continue on the condensed schedule.

Last month, 4 Day Week Global released the results of a larger pilot involving 61 companies in Britain. The findings were similarly encouraging. The firms saw their average revenue increase, while 71 percent of employees reported a decline in burnout. The rate of resignation at these companies fell by 57 percent relative to the same period in 2021, and this rise in retention seems to be a direct consequence of the four-day workweek policy: Among the 96 percent of workers who wanted to continue working on a condensed schedule, a majority said they wouldn’t go back to a five-day job for less than a 26 percent raise.

Faced with rising revenue, employee satisfaction, and higher retention, 92 percent of employers said they intended to continue their four-day workweek policy.

Interest in shrinking the workweek extends beyond these studies’ participants. In recent years, some major corporations, including Kickstarter and Microsoft, have experimented with shorter workweeks.

These developments are encouraging. But their promise shouldn’t be overstated. We are not witnessing any broad reprioritization of leisure time over capital accumulation in the U.S. Rather, in a context of inflation and labor scarcity, white-collar employers in certain industries are realizing they can boost recruitment and retention without increasing costs if they replace unnecessary meetings with expanded leisure time.

The recent pilot programs may lead more employers to recognize this potential “win-win” for labor and capital. And the results might encourage more upper-middle-class Americans to consider prioritizing additional free time over higher compensation, thereby striking a more favorable balance for their health and a more normal one by OECD standards. These would both be fine things.

But bringing America’s working-class majority closer to Keynes’s utopia will require structural reforms to the U.S. economy that remain far outside the bounds of political possibility. Until that changes, for many American workers, the four-day workweek will promise financial instability rather than liberation.

The four-day week isn’t for everyone.

First, it’s worth noting that employers’ burgeoning interest in shorter workweeks was born of specific economic conditions.

By most accounts, this interest derived from firms’ experience of the pandemic and post-COVID-crisis recovery. The first forced most white-collar employers to experiment with remote-work policies. This led companies to discover they did not need to closely monitor employees in order to sustain productivity. Meanwhile, liberated from the panopticon of the modern office, many workers discovered they did not actually need to work eight hours a day in order to hit their output targets. Strip away the commute, watercooler chats, and attempts to “look busy” while the boss walks by and a better work-life balance became possible.

Thus, employers became more open to flexible work arrangements while workers became more liable to request them. Then a hot labor market, in which firms faced heightened competition for staff, further encouraged managers to give shorter hours a chance. Juliet Schor, a Boston College economist who worked on 4 Day Week Global’s studies, has said concerns about “retention and recruitment” have been the motivating force behind many firms’ decision to embrace a shorter week.

In some instances, inflation has also served as an impetus. Rising prices create a problem for public-sector employers: While private businesses can instantly raise wages to keep pace with inflation (and/or with prevailing wage rates in the economy), public entities often need to wait for legislatures to pass a law before raising compensation levels. In the meantime, the government can bleed workers to the private sector. This has been a major problem for U.S. public schools over the past two years as thousands of teaching vacancies have opened up across the country. Unable to offer competitive pay, some districts have responded by offering fewer hours, paring the school week to four days. Similarly, some private employers face idiosyncratic constraints on their ability to afford higher wages and might therefore seek to recruit talent by offering more leisure time.

Therefore, what progress we’ve made toward the four-day week has been partly contingent on the existence of a hot labor market. It’s possible, then, that these gains could be reversed if and when workers lose leverage over bosses, as they would in a recession.

Even in the present context, only a small subset of employers has embraced shorter workweeks. As the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global acknowledges, the firms that participate in its studies are self-selecting and unrepresentative of the private sector as a whole. Participating firms are disproportionately small and white collar. In the British pilot, 45 percent of companies were in the marketing, professional-services, or nonprofit sector. It is unlikely that the four-day workweek concept will have as much appeal in more cutthroat parts of the white-collar economy.

Critically, even among the 61 companies that participated in the U.K. pilot, only 32 actually established a four-day week as conventionally understood. For the purposes of the study, 4 Day Week Global gave employers the option of adopting an “annualized” four-day week (in which employees work an average of 32 hours over a six-month period) or a conditional one (in which employees get a fifth day off only if they’ve met certain performance goals).

Across all participating firms, average weekly work hours fell from 38 to 34. This is progress. But it should temper excitement about the study’s results somewhat. The pilot effectively tested the implications of reducing the workweek by four hours rather than a full day. In many instances, those hours came out of canceled meetings and reduced work-time socializing. It is nice that companies were able to maintain revenues while cutting the least productive four hours out of their employees’ workweek. But it also isn’t terribly surprising.

For America’s hourly workers, the four-day week is less of a utopian dream than an oppressive reality.

A slight majority of U.S. workers are paid by the hour rather than by salary. Most of these workers are rent burdened and enjoy little savings. Many already work four days a week; the average U.S. laborer clocks 34.7 weekly hours, and upper-income Americans actually work more than lower-income ones. Yet when one can barely pay the bills, the absence of full-time work is often experienced as a deprivation rather than a reprieve.

This is not to say that wage laborers have no desire for a better work-life balance. But those complaints aren’t articulated by the demand for a four-day week and can’t be addressed by the kinds of “win-win” changes highlighted by 4 Day Week Global’s studies.

When a company cuts a salaried worker’s hours by eliminating nonproductive work time, it is (rightly) called a victory for labor. When a company does the same to an hourly worker, however, it’s called “just-in-time scheduling.” While optimizing the percentage of work hours in which an employee is actually productive delivers more paid time off for the salaried worker, it leaves the hourly laborer with both less pay and a more unpredictable schedule.

As scheduling algorithms have empowered managers to precisely tailor worker shifts to match labor demand, hourly workers have found themselves subjected to ever-shifting schedules that make planning the rest of their lives more difficult. According to UC Berkeley’s Shift Project, up to 60 percent of hourly workers receive less than two weeks’ notice of revisions in their schedule.

There probably isn’t a way to give such laborers a better work-life balance without reducing their employers’ efficiency. And there almost certainly isn’t any way to ensure that every U.S. worker can earn enough in four workdays to rest easy during the other three without redistributing income from business owners to employees.

Meanwhile, in some sectors of the economy, establishing a four-day week would create massive social problems in the absence of drastic economic reforms. A marketing agency might be able to close up shop three days a week and still function. But a hospital can’t. Proponents of the four-day week aren’t blind to this reality. Rather, they argue that hospitals and other enterprises that must operate seven days a week should cut their workers’ hours and make up the difference through hiring.

This was an attractive proposal during the long period of mass unemployment that followed the Great Recession. Indeed, just a few years ago, proponents of a four-day week framed it as a means of sharing scarce jobs across a broader section of the workforce. And yet, in the United States, we already have more than 100,000 fewer registered nurses than our health-care sector demands. If we restrict every nurse to 32 working hours a week, then that gap will greatly expand.

Thus, universalizing the four-day week would require, on the one hand, policies that drastically increase wage laborers’ power and income relative to that of business owners (such as enhanced collective-bargaining rights and fiscal transfers) and, on the other hand, measures that channel more workers into socially vital occupations like nursing, perhaps through targeted wage subsidies and other benefits.

These reforms would not be all that technically difficult to execute. But at present, they are politically unthinkable.

Keynes’s vision for the 21st century remains a compelling ideal. A variety of studies, including the four-day-workweek pilot programs, suggests that workers in general — and American ones in particular — work far more than is optimal for their well-being. With advances in AI promising to render myriad forms of labor unnecessary, it should be increasingly feasible to sustain high living standards with reduced human effort. And giving humanity more time off would pay dividends to the rest of the natural world.

Nevertheless, our species has an awful lot of problems to solve before we get to our “permanent” one. The fact that some white-collar employers have found a way to shorten workweeks without offending shareholders does little to change that reality.

The 4-Day Week Is for White-collar Workers