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What happened to the 4 day week?

23 June 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

It looks like only some will get to enjoy it

Everybody loves the weekend and who does not look forward to their holidays. I should qualify that and say for those in South Africa that are fortunate enough to have work.

Even if you enjoy your work, there are few who don’t appreciate the time away from work to enjoy the fruits of your labour with family and friends.

This is what weekends are for, it is as timeless as the commandment to rest on the Sabbath, so a hat tip to the faithful for getting us our first day off.

The second day required a few thousand more years. Farmers worked during the day, the “early to bed early to rise” wisdom comes from the farm, no holidays until the crops are harvested, then the mother of all feasts and a few days to recover before starting all over again.

The history of the weekend

The weekend is such a new concept actually that even the French, who typically will not use English words accept ‘le weekend’ even if the official term is French for ‘the end of the week’.

It was fedup factory workers in the UK that convinced owners to give them a Saturday afternoon off probably because productivity dropped anyway and not paying someone when they were not working too hard actually made business sense, even if it was the exploitative kind. Still it was 1879 with the 1st Industrial Revolution in full swing that the word first appeared in print.

142 years later and we are starting to talk about making the weekend almost as long as the week.

The 4 day week

The 4-day week is now a global foundation looking to help businesses and in the end countries adopt the shorter week or longer weekend, whichever you prefer. Ireland is about to start a trial and there are others underway or being evaluated in the US, Spain, Japan and where it had its start in New Zealand.

There is an obvious upside for workers, but there is an upside for business too. Having three days off a week is not the same as having a three day weekend. If you offer a four day week, you might find staff willing to shift the entire week around and so rather than having no-one in the office on a Saturday and Sunday you can actually stay open all week. The flip side is also true if you pay extra for those that do work on Saturday or Sunday, the option of a four day week might see you pay the same rate for any day of the week.

And once you are flexible with your days, you can tweak the times too, a slightly earlier start for some and a later finish for others. That makes sense as many more businesses service clients that are not just around the corner but around the world.

Before you know it you will be mixing things up with remote-work as part of the package.

I really don’t like traffic and am yet to find someone who does, so once the pandemic passes and we all get back to the office, let’s have some start work at home and head in after the morning peak and those that were in early should leave before the pm peak and finish up the day from home.

In South Africa some businesses are looking to test this, one I am aware of will look to not have meetings on a set day, staff can then focus on getting the things done that were promised in all those meetings on the other days of the week.

If this seems too good to be true and it does, then there has got to be a catch. There is. Not all businesses can work like this.

Just like a professional rugby player can’t work from home. Some industries will not be able to adopt a shorter week until we all do.

I can imagine what parents would have to say if children were home an additional day a week because teachers only worked a four day week.

Doctors have long been suspected of working just four days with a round of golf worked into the week. The reality is that most medical staff are overworked and would love to get back to a 40-hour week even if it was five days.

Manufacturing, mining, construction, emergency services, retail, food service, hospitality, government and of course agriculture are all industries that might not be able to be productive with less time. Industries that do benefit would be able to shift the interruptions and distractions that lower productivity to off days. Industries like finance, logistics, and many other pure service related companies could benefit.

It does not mean we should not try though.

Andrew Barnes is one of the founders of the 4 day Week Global foundation, above is his 2018 TED talk on how his company tested and then adopted a 4 day week.

Lying flat

Then there is the flip side. Countries like China more recently and Japan for many years have adopted such a focus on working long hours that it has affected the culture. In Japan, working yourself to death even has its own word - Karoshi.

China’s incredible growth has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and created the largest middle class on the planet, but the relentless pursuit of more and ever increasing prices is taking its toll on a younger generation of Chinese. They are free to study and find good jobs, start a family without a limit of one child and could become very wealthy. The second largest number of millionaires are in China. But many more see rising costs and increased pressure to work harder looking like the middle class was a trap rather than a path out of poverty. When you are working the infamous 996 routine of 9am to 9pm six days a week, what chance is there to find a partner let alone start a family. Not to mention the killer 007, and I don’t mean James Bond.

In April, a blog post by a young man started a trend after he explained that he had not been working full time for over two years and instead lived a simple but more stress free life. One that even allowed him to lie flat during the day. ‘Tanping’ or lie flat has become enough of a buzzword that Chinese authorities have been blocking its use.

It is one thing to stir national pride to convince citizens to work hard for the pride and success of the country, but some see that success being more closely tied to connections to those in power than those who had skill and worked hard.

That idea is not too different from the capitalist myth that anyone can be successful if they just work hard and follow their purpose. The reality is that you need to be at the right place at the right time and have the background and connections to get ahead like going to the right schools and knowing the right people. In capitalist countries those are other wealthy people, in China it is the powerful members of the Communisst Party.

Jack Ma was a teacher and saw the potential of the internet, he was at the right place at the right time and he did work hard. He also did not challenge the Communist Party and so was able to become successful. So successful that his companies did present a problem to the financial system, but after publicly being critical of the regulators and by extension the ruling party, he had to lie low and is now much less active. If one of the most successful entrepreneurs who faced very long odds of success opted to not push against the structure, what chance would a young person have. They have grown up in a world where most of the tech innovation has already taken place and the future looks to be dominated by the kinds of tech that automates people out of jobs rather than making them better.

But wait there's more

Although that is not the full story either.

There are still many more millions in China and around the world that would love to have a job to complain about. If you are young and jobless it is even more stressful as we live in a world where we all know what a good life looks like, with most media filled with aspirational visions as long as 'you can secure the bag'.

Similarly for the many industries from mining to transport and retail where headlines talk about a shift away from being major employers to becoming automated or obsolete it is another source of worry for those that rely on it for their living.

Do you quit to find something else, or stick around waiting for the section 189 notice or the closure announcement.

But the driverless future and retail being dominated by online has been predicted for a while. The reality is that cars, even the smartest ones are about 95% autonomous and so not completely safe and few will accept a 5% chance that your car will be the thing to kill you even if that chance is still lower than if you were driving yourself.

In the same way, the excess of shopping malls will decline, but they will not disappear, malls and high streets are more than just a place to buy things. It is just as likely that online stores will make the real world shopping experience more leisurely and relaxing than a mad dash with trolley in hand trying to avoid the queues and the sold out signs.

The world is changing just as it always has, the challenges are real and the solutions are not easy, but the odds of working to give more people a four day week is a good start to finding a better balance between what we want and what we need, what can be sustained and how we can find more opportunity for others to join the workforce and be productive and engaged.

But getting there may be just as difficult as that 100% safe autonomous vehicle.

23 June 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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