The 4-day week

I just got invited to put a short entry on the 4-day week in the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of HRM . It’s over the fold

Four Day Week

The five-day working week and the two-day weekend, have been standard for so long, it is hard for many to imagine anything different. But, as a normal way of working, it dates back only to the middle of the 20th century. Before that, Saturday was a normal working day in Western countries and only Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was normally taken as a day of rest.

The advent of the weekend, and the associated standard workweek of 35 to 40 hours was the culmination of a long series of reductions in working hours from the peak, of 70 hours or more reached in the early 19th century. At the time, it was expected that these reductions would continue, as technological progress reduced the labour input needed to produce any given volume of output.

Reductions in annual hours, through increases in vacation time and other forms of leave continued during the middle decades of the 20th century,. However, with the increase in the bargaining power of employers which began with the neoliberal ‘counter-revolution’ in the 1970s, progress towards reduced working hours halted and was, in many cases, reversed.

The shock of the pandemic has created conditions for a resurgence of interest in reduced working hours and, particularly, the idea of a four-day week. The pandemic exacerbated existing disillusionment with working arrangements, and showed that alternatives are possible. As a result, a phase of experimentation has begun.

Proposals for a four-day week differ regarding the associated change in working hours. At one extreme, some proposals leave weekly hours unchanged, compressing five days’ work into four. At the other, daily working hours are unchanged, and the number of hours in the standard working week is reduced by 20 per cent.

It’s also necessary to consider whether a four-day week should take the form of a three-day weekend, extended to include Mondays (or perhaps Fridays). One alternative is an extension the rostered day off prevailing in some parts of the building industry, where all workers have one day off each fortnight, but the number rostered on any given day is constant. Another option, drawing on the experience of the pandemic would be a core 3-day week (Tuesday to Thursday) with workers having either Friday or Monday off.

One way or another it seems that the four-day week is now firmly on the policy agenda.

John Quiggin

References and selected further readings

Quiggin, J. (2022), ‘There’s never been a better time for Australia to embrace the 4-day week’, The Conversation, 14 February,

Schor, J. (1993) The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books,

8 thoughts on “The 4-day week

  1. On a related issue – the pandemic has revealed a significant preference for working from home at least some of the time for a lot of office workers. Why wasn’t this on the agenda for enterprise bargaining before the pandemic? Did people not realise they wanted it, or was it outside the Overton window? Or have workers been so comprehensively de-fanged by successive decades of industrial relations “reforms” that they have lost all sense of a negotiable social contract, forgetting they can demand things other than OHS improvements? Or perhaps more troubling, have unions lost touch with the realities of the membership they are supposed to represent?

  2. A week-ends story about the mythical past:

    Three academics meet at the end of an international conference, one US academic, one UK and one from Australia, They ask each other what they think of the conference. When it was the Australian’s turn, he opined: “The conference was quite good, except that it was held on a Wednesday. “Why?” the other two asked in unison. “Because it cuts into both week-ends”.

  3. It’s an interesting issue that the length of the working week seems to be difficult to voluntarily contract between firm and worker – particularly for high-income workers. I once asked a very high earning executive who worked 70 hour weeks and who was always exhausted why she didn’t opt for about half the time for less than half the income. She told me that such a deal was attractive to her but impossible. Firms seem to want all-or-nothing. Maybe there high fixed costs of getting a worker up to speed in learning to do a job. If so this suggests that legislating shorter working week will induce some efficiency losses that involve a greater than proportionate reduction in productivity when hours are reduced. Another issue is the “rat race” to earn high incomes with individual workers seeking relative gains in income compared to others which irrationally diminishes the demand for leisure. To some extent this can be reduced by strongly progressive taxes on higher incomes.

    Ignoring the obstacles I favour pressures to reduce working hours. Leisure is a luxury good so that, as we become wealthier, we should demand more of it. Also increased leisure in the form of pursuing cultural, artistic and sporting achievements often has a lower environmental impact than manufacturing gunk and more generally from pursuing commercial activities.

  4. I have arranged to work a four day week with my employer. My day off is WEDNESDAY. There are some great advantages to this for me. First, you never work more than two days in a row. Wednesday becomes a kind of mini-weekend. Second, I am able to do many personal admin type things on a Wednesday because it is a normal working day for other people. And third, in New Zealand one gets paid for public holidays IF they are normal working days for you… and there are no public holidays that fall on a Wednesday! Obviously 2 and 3 are particular advantages that only really work in the “rostered” scenario, but 1 might be an argument for standardising on Wednesdays for everyone.

  5. I once asked a very high earning executive who worked 70 hour weeks and who was always exhausted why she didn’t opt for about half the time for less than half the income. She told me that such a deal was attractive to her but impossible. Firms seem to want all-or-nothing.

    O’Brien and Winston Smith in the cellars of the Ministry of Love, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

    He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: ‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

    Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

    ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? …’

  6. Ultra long (presence in particular) working hours in high status cognitive jobs where output is hard to measure are a quite bottomless misery. A kind of sectarian brainwashing is definitly a large part of it. Professionals are supposed to have only one thing in live, one source of idenitiy and one locus of social contacts: Their job, their company. The only thing that seperates most anglo style high status professional organications from genuine sects antrophologically speaking is that they usually fall short of telling members who to have sex with. I think it is a hell of a problem for society overall and the direct vicitms, and victims they are despite all their privilege are only the tip of the iceberg. The courious part of it is that it is often so extrem that there is no way this is efficient for the organisation in terms of output long before considering any negative exteranalities. This is about as far to the opposit of an efficient market as one can get.

  7. Hopefully, a 4 day week will give rise to autonomy & engaged citizenry.

    And assist in balancing JQ’s statement of owners vs workers… “Employers have consistently favoured longer hours for their core full-time workforce, while workers and unions have pushed for better work-life balance.”.

    …”Aristotle pointedly observes that “the best ordered poleis will not make an artisan a citizen.” Citizenship will “only belong to those who are released from manual occupations” and, in effect, are thereby engaged in the work of managing the polis. It is this latter concept of active citizenship based on individual autonomy and freedom of judgment that is central to the Hellenic notion of citizenship.

    “As Masse correctly observes, “It is not the manual activity of work which makes labour despised, but the ties of dependence which it creates between the artisan and the person who uses the product which he manufactures.”

    “The Hellenic attitude toward labor is conditioned as much by the autonomy of the worker as it is by an association of active citizenship with free time.

    “The ethical principle of autonomy is no less significant than the social and psychological factors that shaped the attitude of the polis.”…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s