When I was lowly cub, I wondered why the weekend was not longer. I loved the weekend, hated school and dreaded Monday mornings. So I’d ask why the weekend was a mere two days long. And ask why it could it not perhaps be three-days long, or even longer still.
In reply, I was told that work was important. Told that ‘constant dripping hollows the stone’ and ‘the Devil finds mischief for idle hands’. And, wanting to be a virtuous child, I did my work and stopped asking why the weekend was only two days long.
I’m 23 now. Yet the thought and question remain.
Writing in the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes believed that by the 21st century the working week would be fifteen hours, or the weekend several days. He imagined that as living standards rose, a point would be reached when we’d opt for more leisure time, instead of ever-escalating living standards.
At the time, Keynes’s predictions were fairly mainstream. But today, such predictions sound radical. In fact, work hours have been increasing in Anglo-Saxon countries since the 1980s.
It hardly needs saying, but everyone prefers the weekend to the workweek. And as a country, we are richer than we ever have been. Why, then, can’t we have a three-day weekend as Keynes (and others) predicted?
Those who deny us a longer weekend offer two arguments. The first is philosophical: hard work is virtuous, or so they say. The second is economic: we need a five-day workweek to sustain our standards of living.
But neither argument works.
Firstly, let’s be clear – hard work is not virtuous. When the Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell wrote: “the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery” he was surely right.
Sure – the great achievements of our civilization have resulted from hard work. Sure – we all enjoy the fruits of each other’s hard work: watching movies; eating out at restaurants; reading novels. Such enjoyments only exist because we delight in the diligence of our peers.
But this sword cuts both ways. For it is equally true that civilisation’s greatest evils have also resulted from hard work. Wars, colonialism, and slavery: these accomplishments all required much hard work indeed. In fact, it is likely that the First World War took more hard work than all the inventions of the 20th Century combined.
A few years back, an Australian nurse released a study detailing the top regrets of the dying. She found one of the top regrets was working too hard. If working hard is virtuous, as the hard-work brigade like to claim, why was it found to be a leading deathbed regret?
If the philosophical argument is bad, the economic argument is worse. As every economist knows, prosperity is connected to productivity, not hours worked. Hence Germany has the most successful economy in Europe despite working significantly shorter hours than the Turkish.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that a three-day weekend, and shorter working hours, would reduce productivity. Indeed, what evidence exists, suggests the exact opposite.
In the UK in 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath introduced a three day working week in response to a miners strike (a four day weekend, in other words.) Analysts later found that under these conditions, productivity actually increased.
In 2008, as part of a cost-cutting initiative, the Utah state government put its employees on a four-day workweek for a trial period of 12 months. At the end of the trial period, no drop in productivity was found. What is more, the trial was massively popular, with 82% wanting the change to be permanent.
Even if productivity did drop as a result from making the weekend longer, it is not clear this would be a bad thing.
Last year, a British think-tank called New Economics published a study recommending a 21-hour working week. Their study notes we have overconsumption causing environmental destruction, and an overworked professional class sitting alongside millions of unemployed people.
“A move towards much shorter hours in paid employment” is perhaps the best way “to solve the triple crises of widening inequalities, a failing global economy, and threatened environmental catastrophe” the authors concluded.
There is also history. Australia was famously the first country in the world to introduce the 35-hour workweek. Historically, Australia has been a champion of shortening the working week. Why let our history be a thing of the past?