In September, there was an interesting session on the four-day week at The World Transformed, an event in Liverpool that sounds like a fringe festival paralleling the UK Labour Party annual conference. It’s now up on Sound Cloud, and is worth a listen. (The embed below should start right at the beginning of the session; if not, run up to 4:35.)
It’s very much a policy discussion, which makes sense given the context, so some of the concerns— how the four-day week could be legislated, the virtues of it versus universal basic income, etc.— are ones that I’m not focusing on. But the speakers are quite good!
However, I do think that there’s a risk with these policy discussions of the four-day week being cast as something that the state does to businesses, or merely a concession that’s wrung out of capital by politicians aligned with labor, rather than something that businesses do for themselves, for quite compelling and practical reasons. This does turn the four-day week from something that
You could argue that this drains the potential radicalism from the four-day week, that talking about it as a way of boosting retention, or standing out in the market, or building a more sustainable business, turns it into a managerial technique for propping up the current system, rather than a tool to be used to build something new. But I would argue two things.
First, there’s a lot of value in recognizing that this shouldn’t be an abstract argument about whether we could move to a four-day week, but rather an argument about why the companies that are already doing it are succeeding, and how their lessons can be generalized.
Second, revolutionary changes in business, science and the arts often start out very modestly. As Isaac Asimov put it, the most exciting phrase in science is not “Eureka,” but “That’s funny.” What he meant is that revolutions usually start off as explorations of anomalies, and only over time do they turn into something bigger. Likewise, modern architecture didn’t emerge full-fledged from the minds of Gropius and Corbusier as an assault on academic historical design: it evolved gradually, driven mainly by the needs of factories and railroads and inexpensive yet sanitary urban housing. I see something similar with the four-day week: the people who trial it don’t see themselves as challenging the fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism and the 21st-century culture of work, but that’s where they end up.