The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a global three-day workweek would be good for innovation

Carlos Slim’s concept of a three-day workweek could boost innovation as well as productivity. (Jorge Adorno/Reuters)

The world’s second-richest man, Carlos Slim of Mexico, recently proposed the concept of a global three-day workweek at a business conference in Paraguay, arguing that working three days a week for a longer period of our lives — potentially up to age 75 — would better reflect the underlying economic and demographic reality of the modern world.

He’s got a good point.

Nobody seriously expects to retire by the age of 50 these days, so working until 70 or 75 no longer sounds as outrageous as it might have sounded a decade or two ago. We’re living longer and, therefore, requiring more savings for retirement. Moreover, there’s a strong argument to be made for the three-day workweek on economic productivity grounds. The OECD has produced a number of very compelling charts showing that worker productivity starts to decrease when you work too many hours a week. This intuitively makes sense: Companies don’t want to hire more workers than they have to, so they try to squeeze more hours out of workers, and that leads to productivity trade-offs.

But the real argument for the three-day workweek comes when you think of its ability to boost the innovation potential of individuals, companies and even nations. Working fewer hours a week frees up time to take on personal creativity and passion projects. That was the original logic of Google’s 20 percent time, which stipulated loosely that workers should dedicate 20 percent of their workweek to dreaming up new projects and tinkering. Other companies also have experimented with giving workers more time to dream up innovative new products or developing side projects. You can think of corporate hackathons as another way that companies are trying to give workers more time to come up with innovative ideas. Giving workers four days off a week basically eliminates any excuse for not launching that new business or product you’ve been talking about for years.

And, as Slim pointed out, “Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.” That almost sounds like a throwaway line – isn’t it obvious that if people are only working three days a week, that they will have to fill their time with other activities? On one hand, you can imagine people heading to the beach for a never-ending series of four-day weekends, or using those four days to binge-watch the latest season of “Game of Thrones.” On the other hand, you can imagine people actually creating those new entertainment activities and ways of being occupied.

So that’s the real genius of the three-day workweek – it might actually create jobs for humans at the same time as robots and other technologies are taking jobs away from humans. As many economists and technologists have pointed out, there’s been a hollowing out of the middle class as technology begins to do more of the jobs that white-collar workers used to do. So trying to protect a 40-hour workweek is only going to be harder as more jobs disappear. There’s just less work to go around. Eventually the robots will come for your job, so you better be thinking of ways to make yourself useful.

If people have four days off at a time, wouldn’t that generate a creative stimulus for industries such as the hospitality industry, the travel industry, the fitness industry and the entertainment industry? Well-rested workers would have the opportunity to develop new ways of spending our enhanced leisure time. Budding entrepreneurs would have more time to dream up new concepts in their garages. And we’d all be healthier and happier, due to the improved work-life balance, leading possibly to productivity gains in the office or factory.

Think globally, too. If you think about population growth around the world, not just in America, then it’s clear that there’s going to be a massive influx of new workers into the global workforce. That’s going to be a vast new talent pool that needs to be put to productive economic use. And jobs that once belonged to 40-hour workweek nations are going to continue to be sent abroad, to places where labor and talent are cheap.

Of course, the three-day workweek is not perfect. It assumes that you will work hard those three days, putting in 11-hour days. It assumes that you will work until you’re in your mid-seventies. And a shortened workweek could make life more difficult for the working poor – if it’s hard enough to get by on 40 hours a week, what’s going to happen when those 40 hours become 33 hours? Not everyone loves the three-day workweek. When Slim first announced the concept last week, there were plenty of people who said it was unworkable.

Yet all the trends appear to point to continued changes in the workplace. Think of flextime, part-time and telecommuting – these are changes that all were brought about by changes in the way we use technology as well as underlying demographics trends (such as more women in the workforce). The four-day workweek is no longer an anomaly. France has already cut its workweek from 40 hours to 35 hours. Sweden and Finland have also experimented with a shorter workday, from eight hours a day to six, in the hopes of giving workers a better work-life balance and boosting productivity.

From that perspective, Slim’s concept of a three-day workweek is original, but not entirely unique. Ever since the start of the modern 40-hour workweek era (which dates to the late 1930s), people have dreamed up alternative schemes. John Maynard Keynes once suggested that a 15-hour workweek would be more than sufficient at some point. And, more recently, bestselling author Tim Ferriss has suggested the concept of a four-hour workweek. From that perspective, the concept of a three-day workweek doesn’t sound so radical, making it more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary way we think about work.