Since the pandemic, workers have been increasingly unwilling to accept the alienating nature of work under capitalism. Ideas like “anti-work” and “acting your wage” have grown on social media. More importantly, we’re seeing a resurgence of the labor movement, with union drives at businesses like Amazon and Starbucks.
Historically, the workers’ movement has fought for, and won, major gains like the eight-hour day and the five-day week. Big business responded by whittling away those past gains, while their propaganda insists that workers need to work themselves to death. Elon Musk famously demanded that Twitter employees accept an “extremely hardcore” work life, with “long hours at high intensity.” But, for increasingly radicalized workers, even the eight-hour day and five-day week don’t go far enough in guaranteeing them a life outside of work.
Those workers will be pleased, and Elon Musk disappointed, in the recent findings of the world’s largest study to date on the viability of the four-day work week.
A Four-Day Week Is Possible
The study was conducted by 4-Day Week Global, a New Zealand-based nonprofit. The study involved 61 companies in the U.K. employing about 2,900 workers. These companies voluntarily reduced their work week to four days, with no loss in pay, from June to December 2022. The study reinforced, with a larger sample size, the findings of previous, smaller studies of American, Australian, and Irish companies. The combined results of the latest study and the earlier pilot studies cover 91 companies employing approximately 3,500 workers. Those findings show clear benefits to a four-day week.
Of the workers participating in the study, 71% came out with reduced levels of burnout, 39% had reduced stress, 40% had reduced sleep difficulties, and 54% had reduced work-family conflict. Workers demonstrated overall improvements in both physical and mental health. Coming during the “great resignation,” the four-day week encouraged workers to stay at their jobs. By the end of the study, none of the workers participating wanted to abandon the four-day week, and 15% even said that no amount of extra money could make them return to five days.
The benefits went beyond direct personal gains for the individual workers. It also improved gender equality in the workers’ family life. All genders were able to spend more time with their family, but the time men spent looking after children increased by more than double that of women (27% to 13%).
All these findings pose a direct challenge to how most workers are treated under capitalism. Amazon has become notorious for overworking its employees, with workers having to pee in bottles rather than take a bathroom break. Amazon workers at the KCVG Air Hub are demanding 180 hours PTO as part of their union drive, and Amazon has responded with vicious union busting. The dire conditions for American rail workers, often having to work weeks on end without a break, were brought to public attention, first through the Biden administration’s strike-breaking, and then through the disaster in East Palestine.
From nurses to tech workers, capitalism has been hell-bent on wringing every second out of workers’ lives for the sake of their profits. The 4-Day Week Global study shows that this isn’t how things have to be.
Need For Struggle
The findings of the 4-Day Global study provide valuable ammunition for workers moving into struggle. However, 4-Day Week Global isn’t interested in class struggle. Their website states a desire to “encourage business, employees, researchers, and government to all play their part in creating a new way of working.” They aspire to what they call the “100-80-100 model,” meaning “100% of the pay, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output.” That’s a nice aspiration, but it’s at odds with the capitalist drive for profits.
The study did, in fact, find evidence that four-day work benefits businesses as well as workers. Of the 61 companies that participated, 56 report that they are continuing with the four-day week immediately following the pilot. Of these, 18 have said that the policy is permanent. Organizational revenue rose by 1.4% during the trial in spite of the reduced hours. Compared to a comparable year prior to the trial, there was an even more extreme 35% improvement in revenue.
But these findings have limitations. The study wasn’t based on a random sample of employers, but rather on a self-selecting group of employers who were already interested in adopting a four-day week. These businesses skewed small. Participating businesses employed under 50 workers on average and almost two-thirds employed under 25. This falls far short of the commanding heights of the economy. Suffice it to say, Amazon, Starbucks, and Norfolk Southern did not participate in the study.
While society as a whole would benefit from reducing the work week, capitalism is driven by the maximization of profit. That pits big business against the workers’ desire for a good work-life balance. Winning the eight-hour work day and the five-day work week was the product of decades of class struggle facing fierce resistance from the bosses. Since then, businesses have pushed to reverse those gains.
In sectors like retail work, this entailed pushing workers into part-time jobs without benefits, forcing workers to take multiple jobs to make ends meet. A concurrent report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a British association of human resources managers, found that British workers, faced with the country’s cost-of-living crisis, were looking to increase their work hours, to get extra pay.
Even among the businesses volunteering for the study, there were practices that watered down their commitment. Some accompanied the four-day week by cutting down on PTO, or by treating holidays as one of the days off. Others tied the four-day week to more intense monitoring of employee performance.
A four-day work week won’t be accomplished by workers and their bosses finding common ground. The labor movement needs to demand it, with no loss in pay, and no loss in holidays or PTO. Workers juggling multiple part-time jobs should be given pay raises and job security to allow them to reduce their own work hours. This requires building a fighting labor movement. Ultimately, it involves taking big business into public ownership. Under a socialist society, with workers democratically deciding their fate, experiments like those in the 4-Day Week Global study, can become a reality on a global scale.