Utopian or inevitable? A four-day week is both

A remarkable experiment in Iceland, and 200 years of industrial history, show that longer weekends can make us happier and more productive

July 07, 2021
article header image
Reykjavík, looking out towards the Ocean. Iceland recently completed a pioneering trial of the four-day week. Photo: Alamy

Iceland. Home to glaciers, dance-tastic pop music, and now a new rhythm to our working lives. From 2015 to 2019, the country ran the world’s largest ever trial of a four-day working week, and on Monday the results came in. The trial, which grew to cover 1 per cent of the country’s workforce, was an “overwhelming success,” reducing stress while productivity held up or improved. The findings have encouraged Iceland’s unions to renegotiate hours, and 86 per cent of the country’s workforce could now gain the right to request a four-day week.

Back in Britain, when floated in the doomed 2019 Labour manifesto, a four-day week was dismissed as a token of naïve left-wing idealism. In truth, however, the idea has always been a more conservative proposal than its critics seem to think. If you zoom out to look at long-term trends in working hours, you see a steady but cumulatively dramatic decline over 150 years. In 1870, the typical worker in a western economy clocked in around 3,000 hours a year. In the latest available data (2017), that figure had almost halved, to a touch under 1,600 hours. And it has been entirely affordable to “buy” all this extra leisure: thanks to rising productivity, real incomes rose roughly sixfold over the same period. If you simply project those trends forward by drawing a straight line, we’d hit an average four-day week sometime in the early 2030s.

So which is it? Is a four-day week utopian or inevitable? The short answer is that it’s both. Throughout modern history, we’ve seen a steady stream of ideas—from free education to publicly funded sewers—go from being idealism to common sense. Such ideas seem unthinkable—until they become unarguable.

The five-day fantasy

To see how the four-day week fits this pattern, consider the story of its predecessor: the five-day week. In the early 19th century working life in Britain was being upended by technology, and at first bosses were so determined to sweat their newly mechanised factories that working hours crept up. Time off was seen as time lost, and some European countries actively reduced leisure time with mandated 12-hour days and efforts to cut back traditional holidays.

By the 1830s, it was clear this approach was failing. Workers were exhausted and struggling to be productive. Soon, people started to protest in a very British way, taking off so-called “Saint Mondays” to finish up the drinking binge they had started on Sunday. The revelry spread, so that expensive factory machinery often sat idle at the start of the week. In 1845, describing the plight of the English working class in his novel Sybil, Disraeli wrote that “on Monday and Tuesday the whole population is drunk.”

But then progressive bosses started to wake up—they experimented with cutting hours to see if this would make for a more productive bargain with workers. The experiences were summed up in a book, Eight Hours for Work, published in 1894 by Scottish journalist John Rae. There was Mr Mather at the Salford Iron Works, who cut his factory’s weekly hours from 53 to 48 and found that “the men have produced more in the shorter hours than they had in the longer.” Mr Mundella, a mill owner and later an MP, moved the start of his workday from 6am to 8am, after finding his workers “had to hurry to their work without breakfasting, often unkempt.” Again and again, bosses found their workers had so much “more energy and intelligence” after hours were cut—that it wasn’t only output per hour, but overall output that went up. When it came to working time, it seems, less really did make for more.

A social sea change, however, was never going to be driven by a few forward-thinking businesses alone. And over the following 150 years, two other factors came into play: state leadership and union pressure. It is half-forgotten today, because in most of our living memories unemployment and wages have been bigger union concerns than reducing hours. But in the early decades of the labour movement, leisure was as high a priority as pay—sometimes even higher. In 1919, when the International Labour Organisation met in Washington for its first convention, it chose working hours, not wages, as its focus, agreeing to a principle of “eight hours a day, forty-eight hours a week” for manufacturing jobs. Shorter hours would be, the ILO said, “a reform which no other could equal in value”—“a chance for workers to share in the distribution of the new wealth created by modern industry and to receive that share in the form of spare time.”

In part due to this pressure, governments put their shoulders to boulder, capping weekly hours and safeguarding two-day weekends. Sometimes the mere threat of legislation was enough to reset expectations and jolt industry towards a shorter working week. For other countries, sectoral collective agreements or hard laws to govern working time delivered the same progress.

The rest, as they say, is history. Once enough people began arranging their lives to the rhythm of a five-day week, culture—in the form of tourism, spectator sports and cinema—grew around the two-day weekend, and in the process entrenched it. Over time we internalised new social norms, from “that Friday feeling” to “lazy Sunday afternoons,” to the point where, if you look at almost any social dataset—Google searches for divorce, public transport use, carbon emissions or alcohol consumption—the rhythms of our behaviour pulse up and down like a slow heartbeat, at 52 beats a year.

The next frontier

The parallels between the original industrial revolution and today are obvious. For 30 years, as a new wave of technological change has again reconfigured our working lives, surveys have shown huge increases in the intensity and pace of work. In one of the biggest such surveys, the proportion of people who say they work very hard all or almost all of the time jumped from 32 per cent in 1992 to 46 in 2017; the proportion who say they’re working at very high speed all or almost all the time nearly doubled from 17 to 31 per cent. We may not be working longer hours than our forebears, but fully half of us now say we’re “always” or “often” exhausted at the end of a working day.

Moreover, this great rise in work intensity is—just like those lengthening hours in the very first factories—seemingly getting us nowhere. Across many countries, productivity growth has disappointed as the digital revolution has taken hold. Way back in 1987, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow said: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” At the time it seemed likely that this mismatch would be nothing more than a symptom of flawed statistics, but a generation on it looks more fundamental. Alan Felstead, author of a leading study of work intensity, arrives at a blunt conclusion: rather than working calmly and productively with digital technologies, workers seem to be “running faster and faster just to stand still.”

“When a law firm in New Zealand trialled a four-day week, productivity rose 20 per cent”

For any of us who do office jobs, that sentiment rings true. The last 18 months have heightened the sense of frantic overwhelm, as professional life has been fully digitised. Each morning we plug in and mainline an unstoppable stream of emails, chat messages and Zoom calls; each evening we unplug for the day and collapse. Alarm about burnout has reached fever pitch, as a growing number of companies trial “circuit breaks”—weeks when the whole company downs tools and recuperates.

This is just one way in which innovative firms, like their progressive counterparts 150 years ago, are experimenting to see if working smarter—rather than harder—might be the key to producing more. And John Rae would not be at all surprised by the emerging results. When Perpetual Guardian, a law firm in New Zealand, trialled a four-day week, productivity rose 20 per cent, almost entirely offsetting the reduction in working hours. At Microsoft Japan, a trial four-day week was run hand in hand with new rules to get more from technology—meetings were capped at five attendees, and limited to 30 minutes. Productivity leapt 40 per cent. Other firms have focused more on technology itself; Atos Origin, an IT consultancy in France, noticed its staff were sending 80,000 emails a week between 300 people, a self-sustaining and ultimately futile frenzy. The company banned emails and found that, far from inhibiting work, the new working practices were more productive.

All together now

As encouraging as historical analogies are, don’t imagine that we can just sit back, relax, and wait for the four-day week to arrive. Another big lesson from history is that there is nothing automatic about the growth of leisure. It was a choice we made together as a society, first learning—through forward-thinking experiments—how to work well with a new age of technologies, and then deciding how we wanted to bank the gains from that progress—how much we wanted to take as leisure time and how much as money, and how broadly we wanted to share those proceeds around.

Society now needs to make a similarly important set of choices, and governments will—again—have to lead. Only together can we snap out of our exhausting collective behaviour: if a colleague is still slaving away as 7pm approaches, it’s that bit harder for you to stop. And it is only through collective coordination that we can make sure the leisure 21st-century workers so desperately need is fairly shared. In the early 20th century, when paid holidays first emerged, middle-class workers got them first. Then the state stepped in, threatening to require paid holidays from all employers, and the norm shifted, with paid holidays soon being enjoyed by working-class people too.

The state has a role in leisure for one final reason: time off work can be more valuable when it’s coordinated, because so much of its value boils down to it being shared. Weekends are special not just because we’re off work, but because our friends and family are often off work too. Indeed, wellbeing data tells us that even unemployed people feel notably happier on Saturdays and Sundays—so much so that economists have estimated that around half the “value” of the weekend comes from its synchronicity.

Nothing shows this more clearly than what happened the one time weekends were abolished. In 1929, the Soviet Union made an ill-fated attempt to scrap the weekend and replace it with nepreryvka, a continuous rolling cycle of rest days, so that production never stopped. As one letter to the Communist Party’s Pravda complained, “What is there for us to do at home if our wives are in the factory, our children at school and nobody can visit us? It is no holiday if you have to have it alone.” Needless to say, the policy failed.

All of which takes us back to Iceland, and a state that is doing its bit to encourage the leisure time workers need. The work is drawing on that same historic partnership—progressive businesses willing to experiment, a labour movement negotiating collective agreements, and a government willing to lead—that has driven a life-changing growth in leisure time before. And given this track record, there’s every reason to think the same approach can make a four-day week a success—one of those powerful ideas that at first seem utopian, and then arrive suddenly as a new common sense.

James Plunkett’s “End State: 9 ways society is broken—and how we can fix it” is out now with Orion Publishing