Work less, live more: is it time to end the five-day week?

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I have been meaning to write about the miracles of the four-day week for a while now. Ever since I started working a four-day week last August, in fact. This was prompted by a change in childcare arrangements (our two-year-old, Aubrey, started his own four-day week at nursery) and an upping of my wife’s work commitments. We all thought it best that I should take charge of him on Fridays. Having heard friends hymn their own four-day weeks (“It revolutionised Sundays,” said a friend who had taken Mondays off to look after his boys), I thought the arrangement would suit my right-on, pro-feminist, climate-conscious, kind-of-had-it-with-constant-deadlines sensibility rather well.

And indeed, our first Friday was a triumph. I acquired a child seat for my bike and we pedalled from Bristol to Bath and back in the late-summer sunshine, rehearsing the arguments from key post-capitalist works, such as Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, which posit less work as a solution to all manner of 21st-century ills.

“This,” I told Aubrey as we pedalled past the Roman Baths, “was clearly what John Maynard Keynes had in mind in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) when he looked forward to the day we would ‘value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful”’. Keynes imagined 15-hour weeks would become commonplace by now – I mean, he was right about other stuff? But at this point, four days on, three days off felt optimal. There would be time to cook, garden, hang out the washing, play a bit of piano, see friends for coffee. And, judging from the data, I’d get just as much if not more actual work done, too. The Netherlands and Germany have the shortest working weeks in Europe and among the highest productivity. When Microsoft Japan trialled a four-day week, productivity shot up by 40%. Everyone was also happier.

I have a strong suspicion the extra time spent with my baby son will create lasting valueRichard Godwin

All the trials seem to suggest the same thing. Everyone working less – with no reduction in pay – could be a solution to everything from Britain’s chronic productivity problems and the mental health pandemic to the broken care sector. It’s better for the planet, too. When we’re overworked, we drive more, eat more processed food and buy more disposable items. Less pressure means more time to breathe. And while this may sound decadent given, well – I am gesturing hopelessly at the cost-of-living crisis, an all-but general strike, austerity rebooted, pandemic fallout, Brexit fallout, a recession deeper than any in the G7, and a deep-seated Gradgrindism at the heart of government. (Gradgrind’s philosophy, from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times: “Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter. And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place and we had no business there.”) But the grim economic weather only makes the case stronger, say activists. “We have a big section of the population who are underemployed and a big section who are overemployed,” says Joe Ryle of the Four-Day Week campaign. “Shorter working hours is a natural way to share those hours across the economy.”

Indeed, many see 2023 as a watershed year for the movement. Post-pandemic, many ideas about work that once seemed unthinkable are now in play. The largest-ever UK pilot scheme recently concluded: 70 companies (from a chip shop in Norfolk to a finance firm in Manchester), offered 3,300 workers a 20% reduction in hours with no reduction in pay. The full results will be published next month, but at the midway stage, 95% of companies said they had maintained or improved productivity and 88% reported they would continue after the trial. “We certainly all love the extra day out of the office and do come back refreshed,” reported one managing director. “It’s been great for our wellbeing and we’re definitely more productive already.”

South Cambridgeshire has meanwhile become the first council to try a four-day week; Plaid Cymru and the SNP are leading trials in Wales and Scotland, and, last October, the Labour MP Peter Dowd introduced a private member’s bill to reduce the maximum working week from 48 to 32 hours (after which, you’d have to be paid 50% extra).

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“All the evidence shows that you are more productive in four days rather than five,” says Ryle. “People almost become more naturally efficient overnight. We’ve got so much evidence now – we’re hoping 2023 will be the year we move beyond trials and pilot schemes into actually rolling this out across the country. When things are bleak – as they are now – we need policies that give people hope.”

View image in fullscreenWork/life balance: Richard Godwin takes Fridays off to look after his young son. Photograph: Gareth Iwan Jones/The Observer

When Dowd’s bill had its first reading in parliament, he faced predictable cries from the Conservatives that this would be an “economic hand grenade” thrown into the British economy. But he expected that. “There’s never a good time to introduce change into working patterns,” he tells me. “From the Master and Servant Act of the
19th century to equal pay for women, there was always some crisis, some issue, some problem. But the danger is, it’s not a reason – it’s an excuse.”

He sees the four-day week as a policy almost everyone can get behind, since everyone wants more time to do what they want. Dowd recently visited a local primary school that had come up with a manifesto for its pupil parliament. “One of the things they wanted was longer weekends. ‘We need longer weekends! We need them now!’ That just shows you, even six- and seven-year-olds want this.”

Indeed, there have been noises in the US about creating a four-day school week, but until the four-day work week is standard, that sounds like a peculiar form of torture for working parents.

Still, there is a more substantive point behind all this. For most of industrial history, the six-day week was standard. The five-day work week only became widespread thanks to a combination of unions (shorter hours were a key demand of the early labour movement) and bosses like Henry Ford and John Boot (who noted that workers were more efficient when they had Saturdays as well as Sundays off). Nevertheless, the five-day 9-5 was still designed with a male-dominated industrial economy in mind. It relied upon a pool of unpaid labour – usually women – to feed and clothe those men and care for their children.

Now, two parents working to an industrial work schedule is commonplace – not only commonplace, but necessary. So who does all the essential care work? “This is something that women have suffered with for a long time now,” says the author and activist Hilary Cottam, whose book, Radical Help, argued for a wholesale redesign of work around our actual needs. “I’ve done workshops with a massive range of people from very different walks of life and with very different educational backgrounds, and the same themes come up again and again,” she says. “One is around care: people really want to redesign their lives so that they can care in more human ways – and there’s no gender division in that, men and women both feel the same. And the other thing is that people want to reimagine time. It’s not just about desk jobs. Gravediggers, teachers, nurses, people on a fulfilment line in ASOS think about this, too. Everyone should be able to work fewer hours for the same pay.”

View image in fullscreenIs it time to bin the five-day week? Will we miss it if it’s gone? Photograph: Kellie French/The Observer

To take one glaring example of the discrepancy between work and care needs: a typical school day ends at 3.30pm; work ends at 5pm or 6pm, maybe 7pm after a commute. “Whenever there is a discussion about this, the proposed solution is: ‘Let’s lock up those children for even longer!’” says Cottam. This, she argues, is the wrong impulse. “We need to have more balanced lives. What we should not be doing is placing our children – and indeed, our parents – in institutions for 12 hours a day.”

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For these reasons, Cottam considers the four-day week a rather “male” solution to the problem. “It sort of imagines that on the fifth day you will be doing hobbies or something. What a parent of school-age children really wants is to work shorter hours for five days – but obviously for the same pay.” Her focus, therefore, is the reduced-hour week, with four days (about 32 hours) as a benchmark. For many, simply working predictable hours is the crucial thing. And if the situation is fraught for those on middle incomes, it is almost impossible for those on lower incomes – often facing unpredictable shift patterns, dysfunctional public transport and perhaps caring for an elderly parent, too. Her argument is that society cannot afford not to do this.

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“One of the really interesting things about this is how the costs of overwork directly spill back on to the state,” Cottam says. “It’s not actually free. We join the queue for mental health services. We get all kinds of chronic conditions. The number of children going into care is skyrocketing. It all eventually ends up with a cost. All of the business conversations tend to assume that there are no externalities, but somebody does pick up the cost: the state. And families.”

In the meantime, we are stuck with our own mismatching responsibilities. As I have tried to rebalance my work-life, I’ve come up against the ideals of the Four-Day Week movement and the four-day week as it is commonly understood and practised. When I survey my friends, quite a few of them say: “Yes, I work a four-day week.” But it invariably turns out that what they are doing is not what the Four-Day Week campaigners are pushing for, but cramming five days’ work into four days with a 20% pay cut and spending the fifth day doing childcare, or possibly parent-care, or possibly both.

“It allows me a day with the kids, but it’s more stressful,” complains my friend Liz. “The work doesn’t decrease. There’s just an expectation to do five days in four.” Many of my male friends are also running into the feminist argument that childcare is still labour – it’s just unpaid. “I love being able to spend more time with my family, but looking after an attention-seeking three-year-old is more like hard work than what I get paid for the rest of the week!” says Alex. Another friend, James, has recently given up his fifth day, owing, he says, to “Trussonomics”. He needs the extra money, so it’s back to the office for him and back to nursery for the children.

How’s it worked out for me? Well, I mentioned I have been meaning to write this article for a while now. The truth is I haven’t had the time. Monday I am recovering from three days of consecutive childcare; Tuesday I might accomplish a few minor tasks; Wednesday morning I hit my stride, but, by the afternoon, dread sets in as I realise I only have Thursday to do everything. A four-day week doesn’t have much slack in it. It reminds me of those “just-in-time” supply chains we heard a lot about during the pandemic. You really need to be on it on your on-days. If, say, Aubrey falls ill on a Tuesday (meaning he is excluded from nursery for 48 hours), the whole thing falls apart.

Nor are Fridays the idyll I’d hoped. We might manage a bit of drizzly park time or a trip to Lidl. More often than I care to admit, however, I am pressing the Netflix “continue watching” button for Aubrey as I try to finish something I didn’t manage in my compressed week. Or maybe I am doing a Zoom interview while he naps. The truth is, I fear missing out on opportunities and falling behind in my career.

According to the business writer and entrepreneur Lizzie Penny, co-founder of the agency Hoxby, I have made a schoolboy error. She works a four-day week herself. She has Wednesdays off, which breaks up both work and childcare: “Friday, Saturday, Sunday with three children is just too much,” she laughs. But a four-day week isn’t enough. She has had to take extra time off due to an unthinkable run of family illness. “If I’d had to work a four-day week through all this, I just wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she says.

The way she sees it, a standardised four-day work week is an improvement on the five-day week, but it is still mandating the way everyone should work and doesn’t take into account our real needs. “What we should all be doing is thinking much more radically,” she says. What Penny would like to see is “individualised and autonomous working”, where we are judged by output – what do you actually get done – as opposed to how much time you spend doing it.

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In her recent book, Workstyle, Penny identifies seven groups who are “structurally excluded” by the existing approach to work: parents; older workers; carers; people with chronic illnesses; the disabled; people with mental health problems and the neurodivergent. Each of these groups have different needs, but they all work less than they’d like because of the emphasis on the 9-5. To take a few examples: 61% of retiring workers would prefer to continue working, but can’t; 86% of working parents want to work flexibly, but only 49% do; 77% of people with autism want to work, but only 26% do.

Penny is adamant that, with a little imagination, companies can become inclusive and those that do will reap the benefits. “It’s an attitude as much as a structure,” Penny says. “It’s about starting from the individual rather than standardising the way that we operate.”

“It is overwhelming how much evidence there is that it is better for businesses if people aren’t really stretched,” says Cottam. “What’s interesting is why, despite all the evidence, it feels so countercultural to argue for less hours.” She reckons it’s because we’ve come to think of ourselves as machines. We have internalised the punch-clock; we are all students of Gradgrind. I reckon it’s got something to do with the fact that those who rise to positions of power (usually men) tend to do so by putting in long hours – and then imagine that anyone who doesn’t do so is slacking. A huge increase in men performing care work during the pandemic may finally be shifting this, but it’s a slow process. Anyway, I suspect that if we did all exert full individual autonomy over our working lives, it wouldn’t result in hours being shared out. Those inclined to overwork would overwork; those inclined to do less would do less still.

Dowd is realistic. It took the campaign for paid leave the best part of 20 years, he points out. All the same arguments used against the four-day week were used then, too. But he sees optimism in the labour market. Many companies are finding it hard to attract workers, but are unwilling or unable to pay higher wages. Offering fewer hours is an obvious solution. “The bottom line is, if one company is offering you four days for the same wages as the company offering five days, who are you going to go to?”

Ryle of the Four-Day Week campaign feels a decade is a realistic time frame. More and more companies will move to a four-day week, find it works just fine, and soon others will follow. “The majority won’t do it, but then it will all happen in one go. We want the four-day week to be the normal way of working by the end of this decade.”

As for my own arrangement? Imperfect though it is, it has underlined to me that both work and care are pleasurable and fulfilling, as long as you are able to apply your full self to them. It is the intrusion of one into the other that creates the particular stress of modern life. I have a strong suspicion that this extra time with my son will create more lasting value than me dashing off a few articles. I’m also mindful that the arrangement is temporary. One of the things Penny stresses is that needs change over time. Parents age. Partners become ill. Children grow up. Life happens. It shouldn’t be subordinate to the needs of capital.

I don’t think working less necessarily solves any of life’s great intractables, but it is a step in the right direction. And of all the arguments in favour of the four-day week, I’d say the crucial one is the most numinous sounding – hope. We have become so used to the idea that things can only get worse. Why can’t things improve?

Picture credits: calendar by kalstore (; hand model Liv Anderson; assistant Bruce Horak

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