Reflections on the One-Day Work Week

Stephen Herzenberg |

At the Keystone Research Center, we closed the office last week except for Friday, Jan. 2, giving our team an extra three days of well-deserved vacation along with the New Year’s Day holiday. So we had a one-day work week.

Truth be told, I still came to the office on Monday and then worked at home much of the rest of the week.

Still, the quality of life that resulted from only “having” to come to the office on Friday provided a nice hint of what a world of shorter work time might feel like.

It’s been some 50 years since America had a high-profile debate about shorter work time. That debate was prompted by the 1960s’ fears that widespread automation might leave vulnerable Americans without jobs. A recent radio show on “Visions of America Yet to Come” had a clip from the “Jetsons” cartoon of this period (go 41-43 minutes into this link), with George Jetson saying, “These three work days a week are killing me.” In the cartoon, George the breadwinner (OK, so the show was socially backward) had a nine-hour week, three days for three hours each.

In the last year or so, a new debate about work time has been emerging in the United States, prompted in part by new warnings from researchers about widespread automation, including robotization. A recent paper by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, summarized in pages 5 to 10 of this report to the Open Society Foundations’ Future of Work initiative, looks forward 30 years to consider what a new wave of productivity-enhancing technology might mean for work hours and living standards under alternative assumptions about income distribution.

Assuming 2% productivity growth, Baker finds that 30 years from now a representative “bottom 90 percenter” (person in the bottom 90% of the income distribution) could enjoy a 50% increase in living standards while reducing working time by more than a third. This reduction would allow a four-day work week and 14 weeks of vacation. Or it would allow a six-hour work day, compatible with caring for school-age children, plus nearly 10 weeks of vacation. Higher rates of productivity growth shared broadly could yield even higher living standards and even shorter work time.

To be sure, when you run the numbers, it will likely take more than 30 years to get to George Jetson’s nine-hour work week or to last week’s eight-hour one-day work week. But the point of Baker’s hypotheticals is that, if we make policy choices that share the benefits widely, a new wave of automation could make possible another advance in middle-class quality of life, analogous to when the 40-hour work week was first won.

Maybe we can take the first steps towards reduced work time in Pennsylvania by providing all workers with paid sick days.

Some futurists have wondered what people would do with the time on their hands, given a much shorter work week. I’m not worried. As well as donating some time to my job when the spirit moves me, I might spend more time watching cricket. Today and tomorrow, for example, days four and five of the New Zealand-Sri Lanka test match on ESPN3 (5 pm to 11:30 pm) promise to be doozies.