More free time, fewer carbon emissions and an answer to our economic woes. Why aren &# x27; t we all running a four-day week, asks Andrew Simms
In 2008, when much of the western world was reeling from the consequences of the the banking collapse, the US state of Utah quietly came up with a radical solution. The recession had hit hard, worsened by rapidly rising energy costs. Queues lengthened at food banks; unemployment and mortgage foreclosures rose dramatically. Money needed to be saved. The undertaking fell to Jon Huntsman, the Republican governor. Instead of simply bringing a knife to public spending and pushing austerity measures, he surprised people with a new approach.
Back in 1970, an American management consultant called Riva Poor wrote a volume advocating a revolution in work and leisure called 4 Days, 40 Hours. It caused a stir at the time, arguing that great benefits would flow from taking a longer weekend and working fewer but longer days. Then the issue went away. Softly, though, a four-day week became a common alternative for public employees at city and district level. As a public administrator, Huntsman knew this, and he saw the opportunity to go further.
He realised that if swaths of public sector employees all run a shorter week in unison, hed be able to close public builds on the extra day, so saving fund. But something like this hadnt been tried state-wide before. All kinds of problems might emerge, from childcare to public rage over absence of access to services. I believed, we can analyse this for another six months or we can do it, and figure it out as we go, Huntsman recalls.
At merely a months notification, 18,000 of the states 25,000 workforce were put on a four-day week. Around 900 public buildings closed on Fridays, with even more partially closing. Many of the states vehicles were left in their garages on the extra day, travelling 3m fewer miles. Merely essential safety services and a few other staff were exempt. You might expect such a quick and significant change to cause turmoil.
It started with a one-year test period, and there were hiccups at the beginning, says Professor Rex Facer, from Brigham Young University, an adviser on the initiative who also analysed the potential impact. Some industries complained about access to public officials on the day departments closed. But the agencies figured out their own problems, the state communicated what it was doing better, and in six months objections dropped to zero.
Facer looked into how the public and nation employees reacted. Eight out of 10 employees liked the four-day week and wanted it to continue. Nearly two-thirds said it stimulated them more productive and many said it reduced conflict at home and run. Only 3% said it induced childcare harder. Workplaces across the nation reported higher faculty morale and lower absenteeism. There were other astounds, too. One in three among the general public guessed the new arrangements actually improved access to services. The program achieved exactly what was intended, Facer says. The public and business adapted to it. The extended opening periods on the four days when employees worked were actually preferred by many. It was more convenient for them being able to contact public bodies before and after conventional working hours.
Falling energy prices reduced the expected economies, but the change still saved the state millions. Staff wellbeing went up with the longer weekend and with shorter, easier commuting outside the normal rush hour, which benefited other passengers, too, by reducing congestion. It wasnt the objective, but at a stroke the four-day week cut carbon emissions by 14%.
Then President Obama constructed Governor Huntsman his ambassador to China. In autumn 2011 the state-wide four-day week aimed. Not because it had failed, but because it fell victim to a power struggle between the state parliament and the new, less committed governors office.
Yet in spite of the repeal, the popularity of the shorter week entail it was kept by the states larger cities, such as West Valley City and Provo, and was copied elsewhere, for example by the forestry department in Virginia. Far from being an evolutionary dead end for the workplace, the idea of changing the conventional five-day, 9am-5pm working week to reap a range of social , economic and environmental benefits is catching on.
Just weeks ago, Gambia announced a four-day week for public sector workers not through economic necessity, but to allow more day for prayer and agriculture. In Ghana there are calls to follow Gambias example, to allow time for attending funerals on a Friday.
Yet mention shorter hours in Europe and people tend to think of the French 35 -hour week, written off as a failure and largely repealed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Never mind that many French industries kept their shorter week in spite of the altered in the law or that, quietly, over the last couple of decades, working less has also become the norm in the Netherlands. The Dutch seem to have found their responses to all the practical problems that might come up. As in Utah, the public sector resulted the route in response to recession, this time in the early 1990 s, by hiring new staff on 80% contracts.
Job-sharing in health and education is now standard. There are part-time bankers, surgeons and engineers. One in three Dutch men either works part-time or compresses his hours, as in Utah, introducing the word daddy days to the language. Many more girls three-quarters run part-time. Polling been shown that almost all Dutch part-time employees do not want to increase their hours. The approach, backed by decent state childcare provision, allows for high levels of female employment.
But could it work in Britain, where we have the third longest working hours in Europe( behind merely Austria and Greece )? The message from David Cameron and George Osborne appears to be that we can all expect to work longer and later in life, and very probably for lower pay. The nation pension is being delayed until 68 for many, and if Britain renegotiates its relationship with the EU, as Cameron promises, even the current assurance of a maximum 48 -hour week could disappear.
The last place you might expect a new, more progressive run culture to take root is in the bonus-fuelled City of London. But listening to 49 -year-old Nick Robins, who analyses climate dangers and challenges for HSBC, it seems the City could be conceal a little secret. Theres not much discussion of it, Robins says, but if you want to work less, it seems to be quite open. He turned his back on the Citys conventional long hours for a four-day week. You may get 20% less pay but you get 50% more free time, he says. Other City workers are doing the same, Robins says, but without drawing attention to the fact. He sees the lack of discussion peculiar. It is a strange thing that in the UK we havent thought in a culture sense about period. The debate is oddly absent, and then it comes up only to do with family in other words, swapping one type of work for another.
Some business, though, are less shy about the added benefit of a shorter week. Michael Pawlyn is one of the architects who worked on the Eden Project in Cornwall, and has gone on to become a world expert on biomimicry, taking lessons from nature on how to construct things better. Hell explain how a beetle can teach you to harvest water in the wilderness or build fire detectors more sensitive. A big lesson from nature is the importance of fallow time: no ecosystem can be 100% productive all the time. Pawlyn devotes staff at his own company exploration days, when people can just go away and think. It helps you to distinguish the things that are important from the things that are merely urgent, he says.
Jane MacCuish is a former colleague of Pawlyns who works for Meadowcroft Griffin, an architecture firm where part-time working is the norm. Along with the companys directors and several of her colleagues, she works an unconventional shorter week. I work only during school term day and the school day, from 9.30 am-3pm, she says. I run the same hours as my children, and I am efficient and productive in the time I have. The studio benefits from experienced people who need to balance “peoples lives” re-entering run, and you cant underestimate the value to society of having mothers there after school for children.
The apparent indispensability of key professionals, in the health care sector for example, is often used as an argument against shorter weeks. But Caroline Thould, a 39 -year-old radiographer, discovered her employer, University College London Hospital, was open to the idea. She and her husband Peter both decided to go part-time after the birth of their second child, to share childcare.
Wed both been full-time, Thould says, and it was hard to lose the equivalent of a full-time salary, but we save on childcare. We still manage a holiday each year, and I suppose the children will benefit in the long run. In the time they claimed back, the couple helped build gardens at their childrens nursery in Flitwick, Bedfordshire.
Its not only well-paid professionals who can afford to work less. Kathleen Cassidy is a 26 -year-old community organiser on a low income who chose to work a 25 -hour week. I didnt have huge outgoings, she says. Rent, food , not much on travelling. Ive never been much of a spendthrift, never truly spent on holidays, autoes or things like that. It simplifies life, having less money.
In her spare time, Cassidy has helped former prisoners with their rehabilitation, constructed a community garden for a housing association and been an activist with the campaign group UK Uncut. Its about balance and having a passion, she says. Also not being on a treadmill, where you just run, feed and sleep. I felt I wanted to produce things rather than eat all the time.
These people stimulated choices to run less and adapt their lives. They are innovators in a country like Britain, which does little to make it easier for people to work less. Choice matters, too. Research by the New Economics Foundation shows that voluntarily working less is positive for our wellbeing, but compulsion, especially in the context of an economy not designed to support part-time run, ruins the benefit.
There are, though , now several reasons we might all want and need to adapt. A recent report from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research indicated a worldwide shifting to shorter working hours could reduce carbon emissions enough to halve additional expected global warming between now and 2100.
Then theres the fact that some people in Britain work very long hours, with often involuntary unpaid overtime. The TUC calculates that five million employees give the equivalent of a days worth of free overtime to their employers every week. Yet we also have high unemployment, making for a divided country burdened with related social costs.
Nick Robins, whose work is all about horizon gazing, thinks we face a long-term future of low to no growth, entailing we might all have to reconsider how we work. I think we could have to recognise that the norm of a five-day week for everyone is not possible or desirable, he says. Even when economists remember periods of so-called full employment in Britain, they refer to periods when women were homebound, providing the free maintenance of a largely male paid workforce. Big changes will be needed to induce shorter running weeks viable for low-income families.
Faced with systemic economic and environmental menaces, weve been told we all have to work harder and find new technological fixings. Could it be that, instead, the best solution might be a simple, social innovation, an option weve had all along? If working less and better can reduce pressure on public services, create a healthier society and cut greenhouse gas emissions, is it period for national horticulture leave for all? I wish Id expended more period at the office are terms few would engrave on their headstones
Andrew Simms is author of Cancel The Apocalypse: The New Path To Prosperity, published by Little Brown at 13.99 on 28 February. To order a transcript for 10.99, go to theguardian.com.
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