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Opinion We’re making the wrong argument for a four-day workweek

The concept of four-day workweek is modern approach to doing business. (Andrii Zastrozhnov/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“We mean to make things over, / We are tired of toil for naught, / With but bare enough to live upon / And ne’er an hour for thought.”

Workers sang that song in the 1880s, protesting for an eight-hour workday at a time when the average was more like 12. They achieved that goal. But more than 100 years later, we’re still singing the same song.

Today, it’s the four-day workweek that’s gone from fringe idea to pragmatic policy consideration. Japan is recommending it in its economic policy guidelines. Iceland instituted a trial program that went swimmingly. And Spain is working on its own plan.

The push for a shorter workweek was already gaining traction before the pandemic. But covid-19’s upending of office life has made it seem more plausible than ever — perhaps even necessary. Companies have realized that their hastily adopted flexible work policies can help attract and retain employees, and workers have proved they can adjust to radical shifts in their working lives.

Yet we keep thinking about work in a disappointingly narrow way.

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Even as companies, activists and individual workers champion the idea of a shorter workweek, they’re framing it in old terms. We can get all our work done in four days, we promise. In fact, we’ll be more productive. (Look at Microsoft Japan, which famously increased productivity by 40 percent!) No more unnecessary meetings. No more interruptions from our nonwork lives. After a three-day weekend we’ll be rested and recharged — the better to hit the ground running on Monday morning!

It’s not that we want “an hour for thought” — it’s that working fewer hours will make us better workers. But this isn’t radical change. It’s the same old profit über alles dogma packaged in a more tightly compressed box.

When we focus on how a shorter workweek will make us better employees, we’re making the wrong argument to our bosses and ourselves. The four-day workweek shouldn’t just be about becoming more productive — the real benefit is that it would allow us to be fuller people.

So why not discuss the four-day workweek in those terms?

In an admittedly unscientific survey, I asked Twitter followers whether they would prefer a regular four-day workweek or a month’s vacation — and why. Over 500 people responded. And nearly 85 percent wanted the shorter week.

Some clearly wanted the convenience of an extra weekend day, the ability to run those pesky errands that are constantly pushed out of reach by the ever-expanding workday. (Truly, whose idea was it to have the DMV close at 4 p.m.?)

But most said the four-day week would give them more time to do the things that make them … themselves. Some wanted to pursue a skilled pastime that would enrich their lives, such as playing an instrument or making art. Others thought they would spend the extra day with their friends and families — describing it not as drudgery or “child care,” the exhausting task that has pulled mothers especially from the workforce, but quality time. There was mention of various hobbies and associations, of going to museums, taking walks, spending time at church.

These sorts of activities are unlikely to be recognized as creating economic value. But they’re obviously rich in human value: the mastery of a craft, a connection created with others, an embeddedness in a particular community or place. These are the things that make us whole. Yet without enough free time, one can’t develop the relationships and commitments we need to truly thrive.

The United States has for decades been locked into an economic mind-set in which growth, or at least its potential, is seen as the main barometer of success, and individuals are judged mainly on what we produce. In the elite classes in particular, work has become central to our lives, a source of meaning and status. We’re proud of our ability to work hard and efficiently, even though our gains in productivity haven’t accrued to us personally.

But the push for a four-day workweek suggests we do have other things we value — as we should. The trick will be learning to advocate for them on their own terms, with the same clarity and fervor with which we celebrate material and economic gains.

“We mean to make things over,” those 19th-century workers sang. In the 21st century, making over our conversations — the ways we measure worth and the value we place on our own well-being — will be a big part of getting the job done.