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COMMENTARY | Reducing hours without reducing pay would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: Making American life less about work.
This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletters.
The 89 people who work at Buffer, a company that makes social-media management tools, are used to having an unconventional employer. Everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s, is public. All employees work remotely; their only office closed down six years ago. And as a perk, Buffer pays for any books employees want to buy for themselves.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that last year, when the pandemic obliterated countless workers’ work-life balance and mental health, Buffer responded in a way that few other companies did: It gave employees an extra day off each week, without reducing pay—an experiment that’s still running a year later. “It has been such a godsend,” Essence Muhammad, a customer-support agent at Buffer, told me.
Miraculously—or predictably, if you ask proponents of the four-day workweek—the company seemed to be getting the same amount of work done in less time. It had scaled back on meetings and social events, and employees increased the pace of their day. Nicole Miller, who works in human resources at Buffer, also cited “the principle of work expanding to the time you give it”: When we have 40 hours of work a week, we find ways to work for 40 hours. Buffer might never go back to a five-day week.
At a moment when the future of work is being decided—when businesses are questioning the value of physical office space and when lower-paid workers are agitating for better treatment as the economy reopens—what worked for this small, somewhat quirky tech company might be much less radical than the rest of the American workforce has been led to believe. People who work a four-day week generally report that they’re healthier, happier, and less crunched for time; their employers report that they’re more efficient and more focused. These companies’ success points to a tantalizing possibility: that the conventional approach to work and productivity is fundamentally misguided.
“We live in a society in which overwork is treated as a badge of honor,” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, an author and consultant who helps companies try out shorter workweeks, told me. “The idea that you can succeed as a company by working fewer hours sounds like you’re reading druidic runes or something.” But, he said, “we’ve had the productivity gains that make a four-day week possible. It’s just that they’re buried under the rubble of meetings that are too long and Slack threads that go on forever.”
Regardless of any benefits to businesses, stripping away all of work’s extra scaffolding and paying people the same amount for fewer hours—whether they’re salaried or paid hourly—would genuinely nurture human flourishing. It would make caregiving, personal development, and the management of modern life easier for people across the economic spectrum. And it would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.
Over the past couple of years, companies and governments around the world have become more open to the possibility that a four-day workweek could be better for businesses and the people who make them run. Before the pandemic, Microsoft Japan and the burger chain Shake Shack tried the schedule out with some employees, with positive results. The international conglomerate Unilever’s New Zealand offices are currently in the middle of a year-long four-day experiment, the results of which could inform the schedules of the company’s 155,000 employees worldwide. The governments of Spain and Scotland are planning trials that would subsidize employers that give workers an additional day off, and politicians in Japan and New Zealand have spoken favorably of the idea of a shorter workweek.
Later this month, Jon Leland, an executive at Kickstarter, and Jon Steinman, who works in political advocacy, will launch, along with Pang, a nationwide campaign promoting the four-day workweek. Their plan is to spark interest among workers, and then use that interest to recruit companies to participate in a pilot program next year, which will be advised by academic researchers and which Leland and Steinman hope will generate a more robust body of data on four-day weeks.
Still, four days’ work for five days’ pay is a rarity in the landscape of American business—Pang is aware of only a few dozen organizations in the U.S. with this arrangement. Many—though not all—of them match the profile of Buffer: They are relatively small, they do analytical, computer-based “knowledge” work, and they are still run by their founder, a setup that makes big changes easier to implement. But their experiences suggest that when done right, reducing workers’ hours doesn’t necessarily hurt profitability.
[Read: Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think]
In 2018, Andrew Barnes approached the employees of his company, a New Zealand firm called Perpetual Guardian that manages wills, estates, and trusts, with an offer: If they could figure out how to get more done in a day, they could work one fewer day per week. In consultation with employees, the company installed lockers in which workers can voluntarily stash their phones for the day, and soundproofed meeting spaces to reduce the sound of ambient chatter. Meetings were shortened; employees started putting little flags in their pencil holders whenever they wanted to signal to coworkers that they didn’t want to be disturbed. It worked: Perpetual Guardian’s business didn’t suffer, and the four-day workweek is still in place three years later.
When employees are given a good reason to work harder, they often focus more ruthlessly on their most important tasks. Barnes found that even though weekly working hours were cut by 20 percent, employees’ time spent on non-work websites fell by 35 percent. It also helped that employees had more time outside of work to manage the rest of their lives, so non-work responsibilities were less likely to intrude on the workday. “Because people have no time for home duties—trying to track down that plumber or sorting things out with the kids—all of that was eating into the day,” he told me. “So if I gave people more time outside of work to do those tasks, that would stop those things interfering in the business hours.”
Natalie Nagele, the CEO of Wildbit, a small software company, introduced a four-day, 32-hour week in 2017, after reading about research indicating that the optimal amount of intense cognitive work is no more than four hours a day. (The four-day schedule even applies to Wildbit’s customer-support team; their days off are staggered so they can respond to inquiries all week.) “I have this dream that knowledge workers can get to a point where we can clearly define what enough means,” Nagele told me. “We don’t do a good job of saying, ‘This is done,’ or ‘I can put it away.’” She wonders if Wildbit’s next schedule could be four six-hour days.
That may sound preposterous, but schedules like this intrigue productivity experts. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, has written that the current version of office work, defined by long hours and “always-on electronic chatter,” seems poorly suited to cognitive labor. This mode of working has been around for only a decade or two, and we have found better ways to work before; it would be “arrogant and ahistoric,” he says, to assume that the current approach is best.
This model doesn’t just work for computer programmers and other knowledge workers. In his book Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How, Pang writes about a nursing home near Roanoke, Virginia, that was struggling to hire and retain nursing assistants, who do important but unglamorous, often low-paid work. To improve retention, the facility tried giving them 40 hours of pay for 30 hours of work, which necessitated hiring more nursing assistants to compensate for the reduced hours. That came at a price, but the change also yielded substantial savings on recruitment expenses and overtime pay, such that the overall cost worked out to only about $20,000 a year. Plus, call-bell response times, residents’ infection rates, and the number of falls and skin tears all declined.
Last year, Diamondback Covers, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of metal truck-bed covers, shaved five hours off its factory team’s 40-hour week, but didn’t decrease pay, as it hired more workers to meet rising demand during the pandemic. The company expected that the 12.5 percent drop in working hours would lead to a rise of similar magnitude in the labor costs for each cover it made. But the cost increase was only 3 percent, due to increased efficiency.
“It’s not by running a sweatshop … it’s more about working smarter,” Diamondback’s CEO, Ben Eltz, told me. During a 40-hour week, “very rarely does a person say, ‘I got my work done—now I’m going to go see how else I can help.’ It’s that teamwork idea of, everyone’s shooting for that common goal of ‘Let’s make this work.’” On top of that, with shorter days, the company is shedding its employees’ least-productive hours, when they’re worn out near the end of a shift. With the expected savings from reduced turnover and fewer safety incidents, Diamondback’s schedule change could end up saving the company money.
Success stories like Diamondback’s—and Buffer’s, and Wildbit’s—point to a failure of imagination on the part of America’s bosses at a moment when they should be ready to reimagine corporate culture. Barnes thinks the same insight that is inspiring the post-pandemic spread of remote and hybrid work—that productivity is not a function of time spent in the office, under managers’ supervision—should also make business leaders more amenable to shorter workweeks.
Pandemic aside, when he hears from people who doubt that a four-day week would work in their industry, “They’re saying nothing can be better than the way we work today,” he told me. “That’s a pretty closed-minded view.”
[Derek Thompson: Winners and losers of the work-from-home revolution]
There is nothing sacred about a five-day, 40-hour workweek—which, in actuality, is more than 40 hours for about half of full-time U.S. workers—but it is certainly an improvement over what came before it. For most of the 19th century, the typical American worker was a male farmer who worked as many as 60 to 70 hours per week. The precipitous decline in working hours since then was made possible by productivity growth: The internal-combustion engine, electrification, and other advances meant that workers were able to get things done more quickly.
The tempo of early factory work led to a push for a 10-hour day starting in the late 1820s; unions, which gained strength in the ensuing decades, fought for, as a popular slogan put it, “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” closer to the end of the century. The standard workweek in that era was still six days, and the shift to five occurred gradually, over the course of decades. According to Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa and the author of Work Without End, the transition actually began in England, where in the 19th century it became normal for people to show up late to work, or skip it entirely, on Monday, basically because they would rather do other things. To discourage workers from “keeping Saint Monday,” as it was called, employers started agreeing to give them half of Saturday off.
In the U.S., one of the earliest instances of a business implementing a five-day week was a mill in New England that in 1908 gave its Jewish workers a two-day weekend, to cover their Saturday sabbath. The practice caught on more widely in the following two decades, when unions pushed for it and business owners, applying the principles of “scientific management,” studied their production processes and concluded that a shorter week could increase productivity. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company adopted the five-day week, doubling the number of American workers with that schedule.
Not all business leaders favored the change. “Any man demanding the forty hour week should be ashamed to claim citizenship in this great country,” the chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Gear Works wrote shortly after Ford rolled out its new hours. “The men of our country are becoming a race of softies and mollycoddles.” Less aggressive but just as resistant, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group, wrote, “I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance.”
It took a crisis to cement the five-day week as a standard. During the Great Depression, reducing hours was considered a way to spread the finite amount of work available among more people. The appetite for shorter schedules was so great that, in 1933, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have temporarily capped the workweek at 30 hours. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration found it too extreme, however, and instead tried to provide economic relief to workers in the form of the New Deal—rather than limit work, they sought to create more of it. Five years after the 30-hour week fell apart, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandated higher pay beyond 40 hours in certain industries, effectively formalizing the five-day workweek.
During this span of roughly 100 years, the notion that Americans could spend less and less time working didn’t elicit the same widespread sense of impossibility that it might today—it was in keeping with the common belief that expanding leisure time was a mark of moral progress. And for a time, it seemed that the workweek would continue to shrink. In 1930, the renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes made the prediction that in a hundred years, productivity growth would permit people to work as few as 15 hours per week. A quarter century later, Richard Nixon, as vice president, said he expected a four-day week soon enough. “These are not dreams or idle boasts,” he said. “They are simple projections of the [recent] gains we have made.” In the mid-1960s, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine surveyed the state of technological progress and concluded that it was “unlikely that the four-day week will be postponed indefinitely.”
There isn’t one straightforward explanation for why it is still being postponed. One reason might be that working hours have fallen to the point that pushing them down further wouldn’t bring such a large payoff—it’s less vital to move from 40 hours to 30 hours than it was to move from 60 to 50. Another might be that, once salaried workers started receiving benefits such as pensions and health insurance through their jobs, hiring an additional worker became more expensive, so employers were incentivized to squeeze more hours out of their existing staff rather than bringing on someone else. And perhaps the workweek would have continued to shrink if unions’ influence hadn’t waned nationwide.
A somewhat fuzzier explanation is that Americans’ fundamental aspirations changed. Hunnicutt argues that before the early 20th century, “work and wealth had a destination—that was a richer, fuller human life.” But after a cultural shift, he told me, “work was for more work … wealth was for more wealth, for ever and ever,” as a job became a religion-like source of meaning for many people. Hunnicutt also notes a blossoming of advertising and consumerism around this same time, which set people on a course of working more in order to buy more.
[Derek Thompson: Workism is making Americans miserable]
Whatever the underlying causes, the standard American workweek is the same as it was when Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act some 80 years ago, even as productivity has continued to shoot up. Some of those gains did get distributed to workers—Lichtenstein, the labor historian, told me that the working class’s buying power doubled between 1947 and 1973. But consider what happened to productivity growth after that. Starting in the mid-’70s, productivity continued to rise, but median pay stopped rising with it. Instead of going to the typical worker, much of the additional income flowed to highly paid workers—those with college degrees, particularly college grads in industries such as tech and finance.
This is the familiar story of income inequality over the past half century. Less familiar is how this productivity growth could have translated to less time spent working. Today, the top 1 percent of earners bring in about 10 percentage points more of Americans’ total annual income than they did in 1980. Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University, told me that if you could distribute that additional money among the bottom 90 percent of earners, their incomes would be roughly 20 percent higher than they are today. Alternatively, they could work 20 percent fewer hours, which happens to be the difference between a five-day week and a four-day week.
Keynes was right: Productivity has grown enough to allow for expansive amounts of leisure—it’s just that, as a society, we’ve channeled these productivity gains toward other ends. Nowadays, working less is not front of mind. Because median wages are so low, many workers want higher pay or more hours, which means more money. “If the minimum wage had continued upward, linked to productivity, it would today be [close to] $25 an hour,” Lichtenstein told me. “If you were in a revolutionary moment, you could say, ‘Let’s double the wages.’”
Indeed, about 50 percent of workers in a 2014 poll by HuffPost and YouGov said they would work one more day a week in exchange for 20 percent more pay. Part-time workers and those who made less than $40,000 a year were even more likely to make that trade. “If low-wage workers heard that their hours were going to be capped at 32, they would probably have a fit,” Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. “They already don’t have enough money to make ends meet.” In an ideal world, the four-day workweek wouldn’t just mean lopping a day off salaried workers’ weeks—it would mean that hourly employees would work shifts that were 20 percent shorter for the same pay, and would have more predictable time off.
If the four-day workweek spreads more widely, some people will, like others before them, argue that realizing this vision would diminish America’s economic vigor. But it is clearly possible for people to work less as the economy continues to grow—that has been the case for a great deal of the country’s history. In fact, the workweek that today’s business leaders defend as necessary is the one that yesterday’s business leaders argued was completely unreasonable.
Some European countries stand as examples that hours could be lowered further without disastrous consequences. In 1975, Germans and Americans averaged the same number of annual working hours. More than 45 years later, Germany’s GDP per capita is on par with many other wealthy countries, yet Germans work roughly 400 fewer hours per year than Americans. (That works out to nearly eight hours per week, or one standard workday, though Germans also get more holidays and paid vacation.)
Many proponents of the four-day week make a business case for it—that re-envisioning the workweek, and the tasks that fill it, can unclog the pipes of American efficiency. But pushing for shorter working hours should mean imagining a higher end than productivity, and picking up the dormant American project of moving work away from the center of life. If some productivity gains are incidental to that effort, fantastic. But the real case for the four-day workweek is not that it would benefit businesses. It’s that it would benefit people.
When workers rhapsodize about the benefits of the four-day week, their statements can sound suspiciously like testimonials from an infomercial.
Essence Muhammad, the customer-support agent at Buffer, said that having an extra day off each week allowed her to increase her course load in a bachelor’s-to-master’s program. She’s now on a “fast-track path” that will have her finishing the program possibly a year earlier than if she still worked five days a week.
Since Monique Caraballo, a 37-year-old who works at a nonprofit in Ithaca, New York, started a four-day week last year, she has been able to pour herself into volunteering with another nonprofit and moderating online communities, such as a local mutual-aid effort and a networking group for women in marketing. She also picked up hula-hooping this past year, and she told me that none of these things would have been compatible with the unpredictable and inflexible hours at her previous job, at a hotel. “I used to try to do 10 minutes of yoga and couldn’t figure out how to fit that into my full and immovable schedule,” she said.
Several people I spoke with said that transitioning to a four-day week cured them of the “Sunday scaries,” a somewhat silly term for the very real dread that many workers feel as the weekend comes to a close.
[Read: How much leisure time do the happiest people have?]
In 2020, I got my own taste of a diluted four-day workweek, when The Atlantic gave us a handful of Fridays off during the pandemic. In a punishing year, the additional time felt like being thrown a flotation device to cling to as I bobbed from week to week. If it helped me stay afloat during the worst crisis of my lifetime, I can only imagine where it might carry me in normal times.
This is the best argument for the four-day week: For workers, it rocks. Anecdotally, it allows people to be less stressed, less strapped for time, more physically and mentally healthy, and more, as Hunnicutt, the historian, put it, “fully human.” It cannot, on its own, give everyone enough time and money, or fix miserable jobs. But it leads to a substantial improvement in quality of life. “One of the biggest factors in people’s level of work-family satisfaction is the pure number of work hours they have,” Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who studies time use, told me. “So cutting it is huge … It would re-balance things for working families.”
Having an extra day off changes the texture of the weekend. “Before, Saturday felt like my recovery day, and then Sunday, we would try to jam two or three days of a weekend into one day, and I was exhausted on Monday,” said Nicole Miller, of Buffer. A shorter week “gives the rest of your life a little bit more of a chance.”
For many people I spoke with, the extra day off became a “quiet day” to reflect and rest. “I like to take walks … just wander and let my brain breathe,” Natalie Nagele, the Wildbit CEO, told me. Others use the additional time to get ahead on laundry, grocery shopping, and other chores and errands, so their Saturday and Sunday can be more restful.
Having more weekend time also means having more time to spend with people you care about: Vivienne Pearson, a 51-year-old in eastern Australia, said that another free day used to make it easier to visit her grandmother in a retirement home, when she was still alive. “When you talk to people about how they spend that extra day, they don’t spend it getting drunk,” Pang, the consultant, told me. “They spend it with their families, they spend it going to the doctor, taking up hobbies—incredibly vanilla, wholesome things.”
Additional non-work time would also make being a working parent much less draining, particularly for working mothers and single parents. Before the pandemic, more than half of American parents who work full-time said they didn’t have enough time with their kids. “Sometimes I’m like, Man, I really haven’t seen my son in such a long time—like, you see him, but you’re just busy,” Brian Kerr, a customer-support agent at Wildbit and the father of a 2-year-old, told me. “Fridays are my day to slow down and just hang out with him.” Pang told me he sees more people start families at companies with a four-day week, because balancing work and parenting becomes easier.
And just as the four-day week changes time outside of work, it changes work itself, too. In my conversations with more than a dozen people who work four days a week, some did note that the schedule could be more intense, but no one said workers at their company were secretly scrambling, on weeknights or over three-day weekends, to get everything done in four days. Instead, they talked about coming back to work better rested and more motivated at the beginning of each week.
Of course, working fewer hours at an unfulfilling job doesn’t change its basic nature. According to Gallup, only 36 percent of workers in the U.S. “work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.” A shorter schedule would not in and of itself give workers the sense of independence, purpose, and camaraderie that researchers have identified as traits of satisfying work. Still, working fewer hours at a job you loathe is better than working more.
When Leland and Steinman’s four-day-workweek campaign surveyed about 1,000 American workers this spring, the responses were overwhelmingly positive: Only 4 percent of those polled felt negatively about a national push to move to a shorter week. The top argument against it was not about practicality—only one-fifth of all respondents said they wouldn’t be able to finish their work in that time. Instead, the most common concern was that a four-day week “won’t help some kinds of workers.”
Indeed, at the moment, the shorter workweek seems unreachable for the people who need it most—low-wage shift workers, working single parents, hourly workers. Instead, it appears to be most attainable for a group of disproportionately white, highly paid, well-educated workers upon whom the labor market already showers enviable work perks. If a four-day week gains popularity, there is a real risk that it would widen existing inequalities.
Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College and the author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, sketches out a more equitable path. “This is the way a lot of these advances in labor will come. Maybe the small firms [have it first], but then you also get the big, wealthier firms on board,” Schor told me. “Gig workers, hourly workers, lower-paid workers—one would hope that if this really started to take hold, then you get legislation that rolls it out for everybody.”
There’s a question that comes up regularly in discussions of the four-day workweek. Proponents ask it enthusiastically, skeptics sarcastically: Is it possible to go even shorter? Why stop at four?
When I spoke with workers who had a four-day week, I asked them how many days a week they would prefer to work if money were no object. It was an unscientific poll, but everyone said three or four. A survey by Kronos, a company that makes workforce-management software, yielded a similar finding: Four days a week was the most common answer.
It’s hard to tell, though, whether people would feel differently if the five-day week weren’t already standard. Lonnie Golden, an economist at Penn State Abington, pointed out that in international surveys, some of the strongest preferences for reducing working hours are in European countries where weekly hours are already relatively low. There might be “a feedback loop,” he speculated. “They start working out, they start socializing—the things that make people happier. A lot of them take second jobs. It might not pay, but they find other pursuits in their non-work time, and they don’t want to go back.”
From the perspective of human welfare, people don’t need to do much paid work in order to experience the benefits associated with it. Reviewing data from the United Kingdom, the authors of a 2019 study suggested that “working 8 [hours] a week is sufficient to gain the wellbeing benefits of employment”—that is, whether someone worked the equivalent of one day or five, they were just as eligible to receive the happiness bumps that work can bring.
So if and when society comes around to working four days a week, let’s start talking about three.
Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
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