Illustration by Nikki Muller
The shrill cries of your alarm clock jolt you awake. That dreaded beeping machine shows 06:00. Monday, January 9, 2023—the first working Monday of the year. Your head still feels fuzzy after nearly three weeks of festivities, family, and one too many glasses of fizz. You’d probably rather sell your soul to the devil than actually get up for work right now. It’s now 6:05. Desperately trying to find a shred of motivation, you roll out of bed, wishing you didn’t have to drag yourself into work.
I’m sure many of us have experienced that exact thought process while returning to work this year. People are exhausted by the constant pressure to work 40-hour weeks while remaining a somewhat functioning member of society. How are we meant to balance five lots of eight-hour workdays with cooking, cleaning, washing, forcing ourselves to the gym, getting a decent amount of sleep, and if there’s any time left over, socializing?
It isn’t that hard, then, to see why so many people are advocating for a four-day working week. With campaigns sprouting up all over the western world, support for slashing eight hours off of our working weeks has never been so strong.
The concept is relatively simple: 80% of the working hours for 100% of the pay. You’re probably questioning how this is even possible without being detrimental to productivity and, therefore, the companies’ profits. However, it’s already been proven that the four-hour workweek is not only possible but incredibly effective. Just last February, a six-month trial with over 33 companies reinforced arguments in favor of shorter, more focused workweeks.
Essentially, to account for one less working day, we would need to see a 25% increase in productivity. Not only did the aforementioned trial show that it was possible to maintain outputs, it actually showed increases in revenue: “among the 16 companies in the trial that provided revenue data, combined revenue for the companies, weighted by size, increased by 8.14%, which for some companies was nearly 40% higher than revenue growth during the same six-month period of the previous year.” This is a shocking and possibly mindset-alerting result, considering we live in a society that whistle-blows laziness and warns of losses at the first sign of taking an extra day off. It can’t be a simple coincidence that every four-day-week study has yielded increased productivity and no downside.
As well as an increase in productivity, the 4-Day-Week Campaign—the UK’s representative for this movement—argues an almost endless list of benefits of the transition to a 32-hour working week: better work-life balance, reduced commute and childcare costs, lower unemployment rates, and advancements in gender equality, to name a few. Sounds good, right?
While clearly, the four-day week would benefit us all, for some, this structural change would be much more significant. In particular, women have everything to gain with this movement. Creating a new normal where senior officials only work four days weekly cracks the glass ceiling just a little bit more, allowing women to play catchup with their male counterparts, even while we all are equally getting an extra day off. Gender inequality and discrimination start very early on, meaning that women are already starting on the back foot even before they enter the labor market.
Once they do join the professional world, the average woman is far more likely to carry extra responsibilities at home, whether upholding the household or caring for children or relatives that are sick, mentally unwell, or elderly. (During the pandemic, where all parents were stuck at home with children unable to attend school, women took on three times the child-rearing responsibilities as men.) While it is true that men are capable of acting as caretakers, the burden of such responsibilities is overwhelmingly shouldered by women in most societies today. To combat this inequity, the four-day week levels the playing field without the need for a complete upheaval of our society’s structure. But how did we get here in the first place?
Consider what our society was like when the 40-hour working week was introduced. There was the assumption that there would be another partner—almost always a woman—who stayed at home to complete all the household chores, while the man worked 8-hour days Monday-Friday. While some families maintain this structure with a stay-at-home parent, the majority of modern households have parents of both genders working full-time. In 2018, two-thirds of women working full-time in the United States were mothers.
Is it realistic, then, to expect anyone to be able to work a 40-hour week and complete some, most, or even all of the household chores? A study by the ONS shows that women almost always bear the brunt of domestic work, despite the fact they work the same hours as their male counterparts. So not only are they fighting an uphill battle against prejudice at work, they come home and have to complete (much) more than their fair share of domestic chores.
Once you bring children into the mix, women are even more likely to be disadvantaged. Working mothers are one of the groups that most suffer discrimination in the labor market. Whether single or partnered, mothers are far more likely to take on more responsibility for child rearing than fathers. And as the pandemic showed, when forced to choose which parent would forgo their career in order to care for their children, in heterosexual partnerships, the female partner was the overwhelming choice.
A four-day week would give all parents more time to care for their children since it would allow the flexibility that would eliminate making this decision necessary. It also would be a game-changer for women who want to work but can’t because the cost of childcare accounts for such a large percentage of what they make. Considering the average cost of childcare for just a single child in the US was over $10,000 in 2020, imagine how much a couple with two children could save if they both only worked four days a week, therefore eliminating ⅖ of their childcare cost.
The simple fact is that we are working fewer hours as our society develops: average annual working hours in the US have fallen by over 200 hours in the last 70 years. The transition to a four-day working week is the next logical move for our labor market. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Staff are happier with increased freedom, employers are happier with increased productivity, and working mothers are especially happy to have more time with their families. What’s not to love?