Three Day Working Week

Back in 1930 Keynes predicted that in the future people would only work 15 hours a week. We would become so productive that we could produce everything we needed while only working a short amount of time. Our lives could then be devoted to things we love and enjoy. Instead we are in a world of extremes. Some are lost in a sea of despair and hopelessness, ashamed that they cannot find work. Others are on the verge of burnout from overwork and stress, with no time for their friends or family. We need to stop and relax and enjoy things that really matter. The solution is to reduce the working week, initially to four days and then after several years to three days. There are 3 main reasons for this, it will reduce unemployment, reduce consumerism and increase leisure time.

The main argument in favour is that it will give us more free time. After all, what is the point of having wealth if you have no time to enjoy it? Surely work should be a means to an end, not the end in itself. We should work to live not live to work. We are far more prosperous generation than our ancestors but are we happier? We are increasingly unsatisfied with modern life (I am referring to the boom times as well as the bust). Stress and overwork is damaging our health and leaving us with little time to spend with our families. Advances in technology means we can easily complete tasks that decades ago would have been enormous challenges. This is an opportunity because it means we can live prosperous lives (especially compared to the Third World) while only working a short time.

Even if a shorter working week meant less growth is that a bad thing? Growth for its own sake is the logic of a cancer cell, there is no reason why it should be the logic of our society. After all, what is the point of having all this extra money if we don’t have any time to enjoy it? We are far richer than our grandparents but are we happier? Does a healthy bank balance compensate for an unhealthy life? Are we paying for this extra money through ill health, physically and mentally? What is the point of extra money is we don’t have the time to do the things in life we really love? Is extra money really worth less time with our family and friends? Surely we should control our work and use it to improve our lives, not the other way around.

The second advantage is that a shorter working week is the only sustainable option. Our planet is running out of resources. We cannot continually produce and consume such vast amounts. Global warming will mean the greatest problem of the 21st century and all agree that to combat it we will need to consume less. There isn’t enough oil in the world to allow constantly increasing consumption. Either we continue as we are until we eventually fall off a cliff or we gradually reduce consumption to a sustainable level. If we work less and be content with things other than money, then we will not be driven to constantly live beyond our means. Less work and less money means less pollution. We will not be constantly buying junk we do not need only to throw it away, wasting valuable resources.

The third advantage is that it shares the work around. There are many people who are suffering from overwork and others suffering from under work (unemployment & poverty). We do not need to constantly work like donkeys; rather we only need a minimum to afford the basics of life. When France introduced a 35 hour week it is estimated that this created between 300,000 and 350,000 new jobs. If you cut hours by 20%, there is two possible results. Either productivity increases by 20% or the number of employees increases by 20%. Most likely there will be a mix of the two, meaning unemployment probably will decline. Demand could drop by 20% but there is no reason why people who want a product on Monday will not want it Tuesday.

The main criticism is that it is based on the “lump of labour fallacy”. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done which can be divided up, so more for you is less for me. Strangely, the same people who mock this proposal turn around and state that an increase in wages (caused by trade unions or a minimum wage) will lead to unemployment. Or that more immigrants means fewer jobs for natives. Or there is no such thing as a free lunch so more for you means less for me. Basically they argue that there is a lump of labour when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t.

Shorter working week could have beneficial effects on productivity. By reducing the level of stress and exhaustion from overwork, employees can be more productive. Overwork kills any enjoyment people have in their jobs, with a shorter working week. It would reduce absenteeism and turnover. There would be better morale which means staff would work better at their job. There is nothing worse than having to deal with an overworked stressful staff member. People would engage more with their work and be more focused and innovative. Studies on shorter hours have found that they increase job satisfaction, productivity and reduce carbon emissions through less travelling (which also reduces stress).

Some even argue that it could increase consumption as people while consume more if they have more leisure time (though this does contradict the argument above. The point is that many things can occur, even those in opposite directions). It could ease people into retirement and change the current situation where people are shocked and feeling worthless when they stop working. Most industrial accidents (which kill more people than war) are caused by overworked employees and pressurised staff forced to take short cuts.

Critics argue that it would increase labour costs and could reduce productivity as not everyone has the same skills and the replacement worker may not be as good as the original. However this misses the point of economies of scale and the division of labour which is the key lesson of the growth of economies since the Industrial Revolution. It should be noted that longer hours do not necessarily make you richer. After all it is the poorest countries in the world that work the longest. The average Greek works some of the longest hours in Europe while the average German works some of the shortest (contrary to the stereotype).

It must be very interesting for someone from the Third World to come to the First World. They would probably be impressed by the prosperity and wealth. However they would also be shocked by how little we enjoy it and how much we waste. They would be shocked by how everyone is also under pressure, always rushing somewhere, never taking the time to stop and enjoy life. If we gradually reduced how much we work we could devote ourselves to the pleasures and joys of life instead of the mundane drudgery. Work should be the means that allow us to live; it should not control our lives. If we worked three days a week, think of the boundless opportunities we would have.


Filed under Economics

20 responses to “Three Day Working Week

  1. A healthy dose of perspective on an issue that is seldom raised. The percentage of time we spend at work in the post Industrial Revolution western world is high by historical standards. If distortions in the markets personal wealth is used in, such as housing, were reduced, the way is paved for a sustainable lifestyle supported by a more balanced number of working hours.

    • Shorter hours are actually happening in many ways around the world as tracked on (German Kurzarbeit, US firms ducking “full time” benefit costs by shifting to all “part time”,…) – but not necessarily the best way (as designed on Robert Neilsen sounds like some kind of alter ego of Timesizing webmaster Phil Hyde, right down to the interest in religion…

  2. Robert, did you mean “15 hours a week” rather than day at the beginning there?

  3. Sorry, I can’t agree with you. Fewer work hours for the same pay (I assume you don’t advocate for proportionately lower pay) sounds appealing in theory, but it will make employers even more inclined to outsource to China and India than they are now.

    • Depends on the kind of work. For low skill jobs, possibly, though there is no particular reason why having two people split hours should cost more. However to compete with China we’ll have to focus on the high skill work

      • For low-skill workers, providing employee benefits like health insurance, training, etc., cost a lot and are directly proportional to the number of employees. So there is a reason. France, Germany can mandate 30-35 hour weeks in large part because employers pay nothing for healthcare directly.

        • I had the European system in mind when I wrote this, so that point never occurred to me. Its certainly a valid one and I suppose another reason why America should switch to a universal healthcare plan.

  4. I agree with you on many fronts, why work if you can’t have time to use the money?
    I also agree that we could do with less working hours, we are so engrossed in production but to what end?
    There is an analogy told of this fisherman who just fished what he needed for his meals and that was it. So a friend comes and tell him you fish more, then he asks why, he is told to sell. He asks why, he is told to be rich, then he asks why, he is told he can invest in property and finally he is told so he can go on holiday. Then he responds then he doesn’t need to do all that, he is on holiday.
    On other news, leaving in Nairobi and walking within the slum areas and in the villages, I have met peeps who seem to be really at peace with so little and I have also heard of those living on opulence and are quite the opposite. The size of the bank account does not translate directly to happiness though we all need some little money.

  5. A three day work week would be awesome. Great article. Well researched.

  6. GM

    Hi again. Thanks for the blog article! Interesting stuff.

    You are clearly just toying around with a few ideas, and it wasn’t meant to be a flawless piece of work, but as always I do feel compelled to point out a few issues.

    Firstly, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. Although it is not explicitly mentioned, it is implied that you are looking for government activity on this issue. You seek for the force of government to make an intervention into private contracts, along the lines of the 35-hour work week in France, but in this case to make labour contracts conform to fewer days in the week.

    It must be acknowledged that we don’t currently have a ban on four-day or three-day working weeks. Some people do this; it is simply the contract which they negotiate with their employer. Your implied proposal (and I withdraw my remarks otherwise) is to place new regulations or rules on the conditions under which people are permitted to work a five-day week.

    Let’s get to your first main argument: less work means more leisure. Yes, this is correct. But there is no logical connection between this fact and any reason why government should intervene in the labour market. If I said that a ban on chocolate would allow for more ice cream to be produced, I might also be correct, but I wouldn’t have justified a ban. Some people want chocolate, some people want ice cream, and some people want a bit of both. There is no reason to believe that violating property rights and interfering in private contracts helps to provide the optimal combination. In particular, it doesn’t give people any options they wouldn’t already have in the free market; it just takes options away from them.

    Incidentally, I might explain here why I personally choose to work for six or seven days each week. Besides raw ambition, I would like to have the option to retire at an early age. Indeed, it seems that the majority of people do wish to retire as soon as possible. Working three days a week when you are at your prime would not be helpful toward that goal, if it meant that you earned less (more on productivity later). Even without full retirement, I would like to have the option to spend less time working and more time with my family in the future, while also maintaining our material comfort and stability; this means using the present to develop my skills quickly so that earning money will be easier in the future.

    Not everybody needs to work as hard as I do, of course. That’s just my preference. The point is that nobody forces me to work hard. Your proposal wouldn’t help me or anybody like me who wants to work hard: our contracts of employment will have to be designed to get around them in such a way as to permit us to spend more time working than you think is optimal. If it’s not possible for us to legally work five or six or seven days a week as we wish to, then you would criminalise us or force us to scale back on our ambitions and life plans. This doesn’t even get to the question of whether or exactly how would compel CEOs and business owners in dynamic industries to take 3 or 4 days off every week.

    With regard to whether economic growth is necessarily a good thing, I agree with you that it is not. But again, that is no reason for the State to intervene further in the labour markets. Some people aren’t interested in full-time jobs, so they only take part-time jobs. We already have the freedom to not work or to only seek out part-time jobs out and we don’t need a ban on full-time jobs to continue to do that. If you don’t care for the money, nobody is putting a gun to your head and telling you to work for five days a week.

    On the point of sustainability, you have tied together a string of claims which warrant much further investigation. It was only a blog post, I know, but here are some things to consider. Arguments that society would run out of resources have been doing the rounds for centuries, yet are repeatedly confounded by the discovery of new technologies and new ways of using resources which nobody could have imagined even decades beforehand, let alone centuries. Describing modern farming to somebody 200 years ago would have been impossible; they would think you were describing some type of drug-inspired fantasy. Nuclear power? Again, not many people would have believed it who lived before it was harnessed. The internet is still in its infancy and instant mobile communication has only just changed the world.

    I don’t dispute pessimistic Malthusian viewpoints purely because they are pessimistic; I dispute them because they are repeatedly embarrassed by the human knack for figuring out new ways of doing things and overcoming the challenges which Nature throws at us. The human population is rising strongly and hundreds of millions of people in Asia are becoming middle class, prosperous and healthy, and doing so thanks to their own productivity: their own hard work and thrift.
    Even if the rise in population was unsustainable given the ability of currently available technologies to manipulate the Earth’s natural resources, this would still not be an argument against economic growth. Economic growth is what produces the technologies which help us to use the Earth’s resources more efficiently and in ways that could never have been imagined beforehand. The Malthusian always thinks that the process can’t go any further, yet he has always been disproven. An enforced three-day week would have scientists and engineers at home when they’d prefer to be at work getting paid to make new discoveries which benefit humanity.

    And another thing: even if the Malthusian was right someday that improvements in technology could no longer overcome the problem of dwindling natural resources, it still wouldn’t be an argument for a government-enforced short working week. With dwindling resources, it may be the case that we’d actually want to work longer hours to compensate for the failure of technology. As a facile example, consider the effect of the imposition of a three-day work week on a subsistence farmer.

    Thirdly, we get to the “share the work around” point.

    You give two alternatives: either productivity increases, or the number of employees increases. Both of these fly in the face of your call for lower economic growth, since they would compensate for the reduced hours by those who were already in employment. While I could show more counter-arguments against this, I’ve typed a lot already and this internal contradiction is probably sufficient!

    With respect to the lump of labour fallacy, I wonder if you concede that there is not a fixed amount of work to be done, but that the amount done is the outcome of people’s preferences and economic conditions?

    The belief that the amount of work done is not fixed but is the outcome of people’s preferences and economic conditions is not incompatible with all of the positions you cite. Firstly: making labour more expensive unarguably alters economic conditions. Anybody who argues that the same amount of labour will be purchased regardless of how expensive it is, is themselves committing the sort of lump of labour fallacy you describe.

    More immigrants means fewer jobs for natives? Many people who argue for free market policies are actually quite favourable towards the free movement of labour. Read articles by the UK’s Adam Smith Institute for examples.

    You have mentioned this “no free lunch” meme a couple of times recently. Let me clear it up! It means simply this: nothing can be consumed unless it has first been produced. It demonstrates that talking about “free” healthcare or “free” education is a bit silly, because somebody somewhere along the line has to pay for and produce it.

    The “no free lunch” meme does not imply what it seems that you think it does. If your proposal alters economic conditions in such a way that production is diminished, then it follows that less will be consumed. “No free lunch” survives this logical test rather easily!

    Finally, your paragraph on productivity also battles against the prior call for lower economic growth. It’s one or the other, although I note in your favour that you do see these contradictions yourself when you start talking about consumption.

    You mention that the average German works short hours compared to the average Greek. I don’t doubt this for a second. The Germans enjoy a more capitalistic economy, and capital accumulation is what drives general labour rates higher: the more capital employed, the higher is marginal labour productivity and the higher the real wage rates which will clear the labour market. I would humbly recommend that you read “Why Wages Rise” by FA Harper which very neatly explains what I would consider to be some of the key economic features of the labour market.

    Congratulations again on the article and I hope you take these comments in the amicable spirit in which they’ve been written.

    • Yes your right this is more thinking out loud then actual policy. I’m more describing a desired goal then a plan to get there.

      Its true that forcing people to work less isn’t a good idea and would be best avoided. What instead could be increased overtime benefits which would discourage extra time. Or taxes could be used. One proposal I heard was to replace wage rises with cuts in hours. So instead of an annual wage rise of 2%, hours would be cut by 2% and total pay would remain the same.

      The main point is that we need to completely rethink the way we view work. At the moment most people work incredibly hard because it seems natural and the proper thing to do. I propose that change our culture to de-emphasise excessive work.

      It is true that we could invent something that will solve our problems. However, I wouldn’t bet the house on it. The simple fact is that we are running out of oil, which is what our economies are dependant on. While there are alternative sources of energy, it will be difficult to re-adjust to them. All environmentalists recognise that even renwable energy can’t supply all our energy so we will have to be more efficient and use less, which is where working and consuming less comes in. They are also linked by the fact that both prioritise something other than money.

      I’m not entirely sure where work comes from. Economic conditions are definitely a major part and possibly preferences. I’d see it as number of people times efficiency or labour x capital, but I haven’t given it much thought. Strangely it hasn’t been mentioned in my economics degree either.

      My problem with the “no free lunch” argument is that it is usually taken to far until reaches a zero sum point where no one can gain without someone losing.

      There’s no need to end with an apology, I welcome all forms of criticism and enjoy engaging with your detailed and constructive critique.

      • GM

        Thank you for your kind words.

        I respect your desire to change the culture; it’s a fair point that people might have the wrong priorities and that maybe some of us should relax a little bit more. I personally have asked myself whether I might ask my main employer for an increase in my annual leave allowance in lieu of a raise (to give me more time to read and study and travel, which I think will benefit me more in the long-run). I don’t need a government to impose on me what it thinks my priorities ought to be. We are free to negotiate for various things and if we are unable to negotiate for what we want then we have simply failed to convince our employer that we are worth it. If we cannot convince our employer to give us what we want, and if there is nobody in the world who will give us what we want, then the evidence suggests that no business thinks it is in their interests to give it to us and getting the government to force them to do it will in all likelihood hurt businesses, reduce production and thereby make society poorer overall!

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  9. Robin

    Hi everyone,

    Interesting article, I personally would love to work just 3 days a week (and maybe work longer days). However finding a job or profession that permits you to do so, is easier said then done. I’m hoping that someone on this blog can show me in the right direction.

    Some background. Right now me and my wife work full time and we have more money than we actually need. We are both paid an low to average wage, but our lifestyle permits us to reduce our collective income by about 50 percent and we could still save money! However, we tried to negotiate with out current employers, to work less for less pay, but to no success. We even looked into finding a new part time but we couldn’t find anything suitable. We will be moving countries soon so for the moment where just keeping our present jobs we have until we move out.

    My question is, does anyone know a profession or fields where it is realistic and common to work only 3 days a week or maybe be seasonally employed?

    I’m only 25 and I’m willing to be self employed or go back to school if necessary (I was thinking about learning a trade). Difficulty if no issue as I actually used to be a 2nd year physics undergrad with good grades but I dropped out after a physicist friend of mine explained to me the realities of a carrier in physics. After graduation, if succeeds permits, you either work in a interesting but very competitive field with long hours as a researcher, or if your unlucky you end up doing a full time boring job as a data analysis or engineer. Hence, both options seemed nothing for me. So if I can’t enjoy working in a field I love, I might as well take any job that pays the bills but where I can work only 4 or 3 days a week and study stuff for my own time for my own pleasure. I don’t feel the need to actually contribute to science, I can personally enjoy it with a limited understanding for my own sake. (So don’t worry, I know that physics is a wide and complex field that takes a huge amount of effort, time and collaboration to advance just an inch in any given sub-field, I won’t become a DYI physics nut job that thinks he has the ToE or created a cold fusion reactor😉 )

    But back to the main topic, maybe some use full information on my location, right now I live in Belgium, but I will be moving to Montreal, Canada soon.

    Hopefully someone can give me some pointers.

    Many Thanks.


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