It’s a concept as old as time: wanting to work less. In fact, I’m sure there were cavemen during the hunter and gatherer days beginning for some time off from gathering firewood and spearing fish. While it seems to be embedded in human nature to work, it is equally as important to avoid it, enjoying the fruits of our labor and the vegetables of life outside of strict rules. Therefore, common discussions about things like the 4-day workweek are not surprising and certainly not uncalled for.
Our country (and frankly, our world) has taken some significant lumps over the past few years. With these drastic events have come some drastic responses, causing changes in all facets of denizen life. Henceforth, when the seedling of the lesser work week seems to be planted again, we cannot be surprised when it begins to grow. If there was ever a time for such a drastic cultural change, this would be it.
But is it likely? Will the shorter work week ever be the cultural and economic norm? Will 5 days and 40 hours ever be squashed?
As a staffing agency, we see every inch and cranny of the working world and economy. Unfortunately, we have no insider secrets about the future. We have no crystal ball. We can only speculate (which we shall do here).
- Back to the Future
- The Great Resignation
- Is the 4-Day Workweek Possible?
- What About Inflation? Is It Feasible?
- Positives of a 4-Day Workweek
- And… The Negatives
Back to the Future
To discuss and speculate the future of the American working world, we must first look at its past. So, grab your DeLoreans, phone booths, or other time-traveling McGuffins. We are going backward.
To truly understand the possibility of a 4-day workweek, we need to first understand why the 5-day week was implemented and why it has such a stranglehold on American society.
Henry Ford Driving Us to Victory
Before 1890, the United States didn’t track working hours. Prior to that change, the Industrial Revolution (1750-1840) set the precedent for the class-based system that was modern-day capitalism. Those that needed to work worked and never saw a light at the end of a dreary tunnel. They were stuck, and not only were they barred from any American dream, but they were also situationally forced to work as long as physically possible. Those that ruled over factories and other industries understood this, and without empathy for those involved, pushed workers to their furthest limit.
It was not unheard of for the average workweek to result in 100 hours of hard and dangerous labor during the 1800s. The country didn’t keep track and, frankly, didn’t care. Industry was booming and the rich were becoming richer. Those that needed to work (and couldn’t argue with the conditions), were fully drained and squeezed like lemons for aid.
In comes Henry Ford.
Henry Ford, one of the godfathers of industrial growth, was one of the first employers to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week at his Ford Motor Company plants in 1926. He also increased his pay rates exponentially, going well above the average at the time.
But don’t fall into the trap. Don’t believe that Ford’s altruistic moves were based out of sympathy for those beneath him. Ultimately, it was all focused on production. Ford realized that his employers were more productive and less likely to argue against working conditions if they worked a bit less. He found the middle ground in working hours that kept workers happy and helpful. Furthermore, he increased wages to help people buy more cars, creating a wider middle class (his target audience).
Franklin D. Roosevelt Approves
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law as part of the New Deal. Overall, it was an act to help the country move away from the Great Depression. The act called for the 44-hour workweek. Any hours worked after that amount would require overtime pay. Two years later, the amount was reduced to 40 hours.
Almost 90 years later, the cultural and legal standpoint still holds true. The 40-hour workweek (often consisting of 5 8-hour days) has become an economic and cultural cornerstone. Imagining a world without it would be… drastic.
Let’s not forget the main point of the initial structure, though. The changes came during a time of upheaval and outrage. Citizens were tired of being overworked and underpaid. Therefore, a change was needed to keep everyone happy. Leaders found a time period that worked to keep production at a high and revolt at a low. It was never based on employee happiness, but on the amount of time a worker can be forced to work and still remain mentally intact.
Though we have been blinded by tradition, the normal work week was never created to benefit us, but to keep us silent and content. It was the perfect amount of time to crossover mental and physical health with profitable outcomes. To think it was created to benefit you is a mistake that helps keep the idea and law in control.
You Say You Want a Revolution?
Let us be clear: we are not clamoring for a labor-based uprise. We are not stating that the future needs to sway one way or the other. Our point is entirely unbiased. At the end of the day, we are just pushing the point of understanding. We understand and aren’t surprised by those asking for a revision to the average workweek. With a worldwide pandemic striking the chord of the reinstated values, we understand that a work change is a possibility in the cards for shell-shocked employees.
We have already seen multiple new work trends formed from the ashes of the pandemic working world. When you force employees to work from home or be unemployed for two years, you are likely to see drastic changes in values and ideas. Therefore, small working revolutions have been popping up (in theory) since 2019.
Let’s name the big three we have seen so far as a staffing company:
The Great Resignation
There was a mass societal shift bubbling beneath millions of Zoom calls and at-home workplaces. As a pandemic charged across the world, so did a train of thought, pushing through years of static and comfortable stigmas. The Great Resignation: a chance for people to reevaluate their values of both life and work.
Sandwiched between pandemic-forced isolation and at-home working policies, people had more time for introspection. After a year-long bout of battling against boredom and seclusion, a mass thought process swept the nation like a refreshing broom. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47.8 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in 2021.
Ultimately, people decided that they were no longer happy with getting by. Workers realized with rightful thought that they are worth more than paid. Why work a job you don’t enjoy when life is so short and crucial? Why waste precious life doing something you don’t like just to get by?
Consider it a renaissance, if you will. A great awakening in the minds of the common employee. Workers have taken over the power, holding higher and reasonable expectations for future employers. Regardless of your opinion on the matter, it’s impossible to overlook the numbers. A sizable shift in the job market did happen. The Great Resignation truly lived up to its title.
Though not as significant as the Great Resignation and all of the grand quitting that happened over the past few years, Quiet Quitting was a subtler reaction to the pandemic and labor market.
Overall, Quiet Quitting is when a worker does the bare minimum because they have lost their love for the job, have become burnt-out, or are biding their time while they look for another career. It’s the act of giving up on production but still working enough to keep the income.
Employees are now more likely to quiet quit because employees are more likely to evaluate their workplace happiness. The mindset of employee values has shifted immensely, and if a worker is unsatisfied with the culture and compensation of their current situation, they are more likely to quiet quit (or outright quit).
Frugality is like the sister to Quiet Quitting. It retains effort but reduces the need for work.
Fundamentally, workers are spending less money so they can work fewer hours.
As an example, Bloomberg spoke to Marie Crespin, a 31-year-old HR worker in Nantes, France. She now makes 1,600 euros ($1,608) a month, while she used to make 2,300 euros. To combat this, Crespin has spent significantly less money on take-out and clothes. Now, she works 20 hours instead of 40.
“Work shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life,” Crespin told Bloomberg reporter, Alice Kantor. “Having the freedom to do what you want with your time is today’s true luxury.”
A July survey by FlexJobs found that 44% of workers surveyed would take a pay cut to improve their work-life balance.
Simply put: people are willing to make less and spend less to enjoy more time outside of work. Materialism has fallen by the wayside, while quality time with themselves and their family has risen. Humans desiring more time with life and significant others is a natural and understandable response to a two-year-long life-threatening excursion.
What’s Your Point?
The power of employers over employees has shifted. There are currently a plethora of available jobs and lower unemployment. Workers have the choice to be picky over their workplaces, employer companies, and ideals. If they believe that a company doesn’t improve them as a person, they can afford to change careers.
Furthermore, workers have already shown that they want to work less, be thought of more, and have a mutual relationship with their employer. Workers want to be given the benefits and flexibility that they believe they deserve (rightfully so) and they have shown they are willing to drop jobs if these needs are not meant.
We have already seen some big shifts in the world of working (as listed above). With the flux in power dynamics, now would be the time for a change as significant as the 4-day workweek becoming the legal norm.
This is not to say that we, at Tier2Tek, believe the 4-day workweek will happen. We are just stating that the likelihood is much higher than it has ever been. The labor field is closer to the upheaval that caused the 5-day workweek than it has ever been since.
Is the 4-Day Workweek Possible?
Before we even begin delving into theories, we must look at statistics and psychology. Luckily, there have been plenty of higher minds that have been crunching the numbers and analyzing the possibility of a 4-day workweek on both the mind and the economy.
The question becomes: is the 4-day workweek even possible? Is it just a lofty goal that is desired by those considered lazy?
Firstly, there have been a wide array of countries that have either already implemented the workweek or have given it a trial run. Therefore, we will learn from those that have already experienced the possibility. Let’s go over every country that has tried it and what they think of the schedule.
Countries that have attempted the 4-day workweek and the outcomes:
- Belgium – the country recently allowed salary workers to work 4 days instead of 5. This does not mean that the workweek will include fewer hours, though. The workers will still work the full amount of hours jammed into fewer days, making the comparison not entirely one-to-one. Because it calls for the same amount of overall hours, plenty have decided to stay with the 5-day schedule.
- The United Kingdom – the United Kingdom ran a very successful trial period of the 4-day workweek. We will discuss this further with statistical details in a bit.
- Scotland and Wales – Scotland has decided to start a trial period in 2023. Wales is not far behind, with Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner, calling for a similar trial this year.
- Spain – Within the next year, Spain plans to implement a trial period for the reduced workweek. They are looking to see if it will boost productivity. To help bolster the test, the government will partly finance wage costs and will help to fund training to improve efficiency.
- Iceland – Iceland held the world’s largest pilot of a 36-hour workweek between 2015 to 2019. They saw such a significant increase in productivity and happiness that they made it the norm. Iceland has had a majority-based 36-hour workweek since.
- Germany – Overall, the country is already at the forefront of the smaller work week. They are the proud owners of the shortest workweek in Europe, according to World Economic Forum (WEF). The average working week in Germany is 34.2 hours.
- Japan – Japan has slightly dabbled with the idea. In 2019, Microsoft in Japan experimented with the model by offering employees 4-day workweeks for a month. The move boosted productivity by 40% and resulted in more efficient work.
- New Zealand – Though a small example, the manufacturing company, Unilever, has started a trial period of 4-day workweeks for over a year with their employees. If it’s successful, they will implement it in their other locations.
What About the U.K. Study?
As we stated, the United Kingdom already ran an extensive study regarding the 4-day workweek. Being close examiners, they have the most significant statistics and findings of the idea.
As of June 2022, over 70 British companies and more than 3,300 workers began a pilot for the 4-day workweek. The study will continue for an entire year, but the halfway statistics were released in December.
Consequently, the study has proven to be a success, though a few downfalls do exist. Let’s run over some statistics (all provided by Forbes).
- 88% of respondent businesses stated that the 4-day week is working “well”.
- 46% of respondents say their business productivity has “maintained around the same level.”
- 34% report that it has “improved slightly.”
- 15% say it has “improved significantly.”
- On how smooth the transition to a 4-day week has been (with 5 being extremely smooth and 1 being extremely challenging), 29% of respondents selected 5, 49% selected 4 and 20% selected 3.
- 86% of respondents stated that at this juncture in the trial, they would be extremely likely and or likely to consider retaining the 4-day week policy after the trial period.
While the study is only halfway finished, it is proving to be a positive example of what can happen. Of course, we must wait and see the full outcome, for things could change drastically in the next half of the pilot (though it seems unlikely).
At the end of the day, 86% of companies stating they would be likely to consider retaining the 4-day workweek is significant. Though consideration is still a strong word here. Realistically, seeing around 50% of respondents stick with it permanently would be a substantial outcome for those on the 4-day workweek team.
Ultimately, the change has proven to be positive for just about every country that has attempted it. So, why does it not seem to be a sticky possibility? Why is it still stagnant, staying only in the testing phases?
It may be a problem deep-rooted in what we once considered necessary. It may be that we have instilled a culture of the working man, causing anything that counters it to be considered lazy or radical. We are so stuck in the concept that breaking from it would take a drastic push from an entire majority of employees. Which, due to the constraints of modern capitalism, is almost impossible.
With living prices so high, how would we ever break for protest?
What About Inflation? Is It Feasible?
Here’s the main problem with the theory: to work fewer days and still live, companies would have to increase their wages. Therefore, companies would have to pay employees more for less work. A result would be less overall production; though workers are working harder when they’re at their jobs, they will still be producing on fewer days. Therefore, production is lower and wages are higher, a quick way to increase inflation.
If higher wages are not given but fewer hours are required, the wage gap between classes will become significant and lower-class citizens will not be able to afford normal human necessities (as if they already can). Consequently, you are left in an economy without balance. Chaos would ensue, at least at first.
Ultimately, it would take help and acceptance from employers to work. But why would employers make changes that don’t benefit them? Why would a company sacrifice production or profit to help the worker? A human being that deserves more life-based benefits? It’s impossible to say.
This is not being cynical, but stating that the whole altruistic point of lowering hours in the first place was due to an increase in production and a decrease in strikes. We were lucky enough to get that from major corporations. Right?
The bigger obstacle stopping the change is our stubbornness for change (both employees and employers).
Matthew Bidwell, Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, stated, “Never say never. But I’m not anticipating it happening anytime soon. I don’t think there’s a huge clamor for it. We are a bit of a workaholic nation, and we don’t even take very much holiday.”
The idea of working hard and trading labor for pay will always stand as a cornerstone of our blue-collar society. Though some have become skeptical of the true intentions of businesses, they still know and believe that they must work an honest day to receive honest pay. An entire week of work being the norm is so embedded in our culture and history, it’s almost impossible to see our people going against it.
Luckily, the new generation is going against the grain, fighting hard to combat the idea of working to live.
Wharton assistant management professor, Michael Parke, stated, “There are really salient, existential threats that are happening where people are questioning the ideal worker prototype of ‘do your job, be loyal, work hard.’ There is a belief that businesses are set up to exploit employees.”
So, like the spike in demand for a mobile workweek (which has ultimately been met by a lot of companies), maybe the next generation will push the demand for the 4-day workweek past the cultural status quo. It’s impossible to guess, but without a more significant jab by the majority of lower-class employees, Congress is very unlikely to make a change as significant as the one in 1938.
Positives of a 4-Day Workweek
When all is said and done, we must remember our target audience. As a staffing agency, we mostly deal with companies on the employer’s end. We would be completely alienating our entire client base if we didn’t speak about how a 4-day workweek could benefit (or harm) an employer. As a company, you deserve to know and understand how it would affect you.
As we’ve stated, we are keeping an unbiased approach toward the situation. Though we tend to echo the ideas of workers through voice and reason, we understand both sides of the argument. Production is the name of the game for any company. If a 4-day workweek was truly a harm to the normalcy of business functions, it’s reasonable to be against it.
Regardless, let’s discuss a few positives.
Here’s the good thing: workers that are well-rested tend to be happier and harder-working. Go figure.
In the aforementioned New Zealand study, researchers found that employees were less stressed with a decrease of 45% to 38%. And, according to the American Institute of Stress, stress, anxiety, and depression cost the global economy around $1 trillion in lost productivity.
Therefore, the correlation stands. Less stress equals better work and production. Three days off leads to more rest and less stress.
This drop in stress also improves customer service. Which, in return, can lead to better sales numbers.
Lower Carbon Footprint
If your employees have an extra day off, your company is shut down for an extra day during the week. This reduction in energy needs and production power significantly lowers your company’s carbon footprint.
A study by the state of Utah on the ecological impact of a 4-day workweek found that during the first ten months, the project saved over $1.8 million in energy costs and a reduction of at least 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from closing the large office building on Fridays.
There was also a significant reduction in CO2 due to cars being off the road for one daily commute.
In a world facing ever-growing climate danger, lowering your carbon footprint is always a positive.
Future Workforce Happiness
Recently, we have delved into Generation Z and their work habits. Ultimately, they will take over more than 30% of the country’s workforce by the end of the decade. Therefore, it’s important to have them on your side and ready to work for you going forward.
Being such progressive thinkers and empowered individuals, a majority of the generation believes in workplace flexibility and better work-life balance (see frugality above). In fact, flexibility is one of the qualities they desire the most in an employer.
Having the ability to choose flexible schedules will adhere to their wants, helping your company stay up-to-date with future working generations.
And… The Negatives
On the other hand, the 4-day workweek brings plenty of negatives for businesses. As a company, you can probably already gather the issues that it might boil to the surface. You’d be right. There are plenty of negatives surrounding the working situation, though all seem manageable in the long run.
Regardless of your stance, here are the biggest negatives.
Having your office, warehouse, storefront, or factory open for one less day a week means that you will have a reduced production or sales amount. It’s that simple. There’s no extra math to it.
On the contrary, your business could still operate a normal schedule, you would just need extra workers to make up for the 4-day work cycle. But, employing multiple people costs more in resources. It’s a tricky situation.
The real question is whether the boost in the production of happy and stress-free workers makes up for the extra day not being open. That’s the big dilemma to solve as a business.
Could Cause More Stress
While some may cheer for a 4-day workweek consisting of 40 hours (10-hour shifts), they may change their mind quickly. 10-hour days may be too long for some, especially those that are used to the normal 9-to-5 work schedule.
In return, asking your workers to stay for an extra couple of hours a day might actually increase stress. You never truly know until you try it.
The last issue is one we’ve already touched on. If you decide to drop your work rate down to 32-35 hours a week, then you would have to make up for the hourly difference for those not on salary.
For example, those that make minimum wage require 40 hours to make the amount considered ‘minimum wage’. Anything under the 40-hour calculation would be considered less than liveable. Therefore, you would have to pay your hourly employees more to make a liveable wage with the reduction of hours.
As we stated, why increase pay for fewer hours of production? That’s the battle for employees when adopting the 4-day workweek.
And… We’ve finally arrived at our prediction. Do we (Tier2Tek Staffing) believe that the 4-day workweek will become the new legal norm for the United States?
Not anytime soon.
While we imagine that many companies will look to adopt a new working schedule (much like they adopted remote working) in the future, we cannot see that it will be the average anytime soon. Why would it? Companies are too hesitant and the culture is too stubborn. The only way something drastic will happen is if a new generation decides to rise up.
More than likely, the 5-day workweek is here to stay… For now.