A four-day work week is only a matter of time – and that’s not necessarily a good thing

At the TUC’s 150th congress this September, the general secretary Frances O’Grady declared that a four-day work week is a realistic goal. Strident advances in technology are threatening workers, intensifying workloads when they should be creating better working conditions. As O’Grady stated: “It’s time to share the wealth from new technology”. In Europe, the TUC is far from alone in voicing a demand for working less. In many other countries, there are rising calls to resist pressures for extending working hours and to instead aim to reduce them.

Considering that a four-day week would mean working approximately 32 hours a week, we can be optimistic about reaching this goal. In fact, the UK is almost there. On average, employees now work about 36.5 hours a week. This is about 0.2 hours less than 10 years ago, but a clear hour less than 20 years ago. At this pace, the UK can hit the 32-hour mark by 2093 – achieving the TUC’s goal this century therefore seems like a safe bet.

But that’s not necessarily good news. The ‘average working week’ doesn’t really exist. The 36.5 figure is actually the result of full-time employees working about 42 hours a week and part-time employees working 20 hours.

With almost one in four employees working part-time jobs, the UK takes seventh place in Europe for its part-time work levels. The champion is the Netherlands, where almost 50 per cent of employees work part-time jobs and the average weekly working time is even less than 30 hours a week.

Equality is the issue

So, does the TUC just need to sit by, relax, and enjoy the part-time show? Well, that depends if we consider the increase in part-time work to be a good thing. Is the gradual extension of part-time contracts a natural way of decreasing working time for the benefit of all?

Taking a positive view, we could argue that part-time work gives everybody the liberty to make their working hours fit around their private lives. A new father might favour a four-day working week because he can look after his children, while others may want to balance their work life with other hobbies and pursuits. Part-time work could also be considered emancipatory as it creates a stepping stone to entering the labour market, making it more accessible. A previously unemployed person, for example, could start working at 40 per cent while simultaneously taking a training course, and increase their work hours gradually.

From a more critical perspective, however, part-time work obviously has its downsides. All too often, it’s not really by choice that an employee works part-time, and even if it is, this choice is affected by the availability of services like child care.

Take cleaners, for example. They often work part-time because the work is too arduous to do full-time. What they have to sacrifice, of course, is a full-time wage. Can that really be considered the choice of the worker?

And as part-time work entails a part-time salary, this means that the reduction in working time is fully paid for by the employee. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean a reduced workload. On the contrary, working four days a week often means doing the same work in fewer hours (and for less pay).

Finally, from a societal point of view, there is a clear gender dimension to part-time work. By and large, it’s still mothers who reduce their working hours to watch the kids, not fathers. This means it is generally women who receive a lower income, lower pension and less career progression.

The ‘natural’ path to working time reduction thus threatens to exacerbate rather than tackle existing inequalities.

The TUC’s challenge is therefore not reducing the working week but ensuring it is reduced in a socially equal way. The task for the next century is to manage, shape and orient the reduction in working time. How this can best be done is an open question, but one thing seems evident: we cannot rely entirely on people’s individual choices in setting their working time.

Collective solutions are the only ones that can guarantee equal outcomes. Collective solutions that (at least) incite men to work less and care for the children, that avoid individual repercussions from wishing to work less. Collective solutions against collective risks, just like we have always done in the labour field.