A shorter working week is in reach

Unions and businesses are backing the movement to cut working time

Working time is set to become one of the major battlegrounds of our generation – and the new report published today by Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign is an important and timely resource for the growing movement. The authors – including my colleague Aidan Harper, a founder of the 4 Day Week Campaign – are right to highlight the opportunity for national policy change as well as the central role for unions in ensuring that reduced working hours benefit everyone, not just those who can currently afford it.

Next week will see the launch of the London Good Work Commission. The New Economics Foundation is pleased to be part of this alliance, in which we will be developing a strategy for making London a four-day week city while tackling the growth of low pay and insecure work. As part of the Commission and through our work with unions we aim to build a new consensus that more free time can be baked into the rules of the economy.

At NEF we have long called for a shorter working week to tackle a multitude of problems – from gender inequality to overwork to stress. Today we recognise it as a strategy for industries in transition, whether due to technological change, declining high-carbon industries, or changes in international markets and trade relations.

Making automation work for us

With a rebooted Green New Deal on the cards – promising a new generation of green jobs across the country – there is an opportunity to make sure we’re not just talking about the quantity, but also the quality of those jobs. We should shape the changing world of work, and build an alternative to the damaging trends that have taken hold of the UK labour market – such as precariousness, outsourcing and the corporate misuse of self-employment we’ve seen in the gig economy and construction sector.

Rather than allowing automation to lead to more precarity and increased regional inequality, its benefits could be harnessed to reduce working hours in the UK with no loss of pay, thus helping workers receive a greater share of the productivity benefits robots and machine learning can bring.

There is also potential to redistribute work across generational and gender lines, by, for example, providing opportunities for more women to enter jobs traditionally held by men, like manufacturing and engineering, or providing an opportunity for a gradual retirement that allows people more time off to care for loved ones. This must come as part of a wider industrial policy that includes public investment and a skills and education strategy. It allows us to revisit some fundamental questions – like how much time we should spend in work to maximise individual benefits like wellbeing and health, and societal ones around social care, childcare and a green transition.

Learning from workplaces

Changes such as these now feel within reach. Employers and unions are already leading on the implementation of reduced working hours in a number of workplaces and sectors. In March we are launching a newsletter that will cover groundbreaking projects and shorter working week trials across Europe, as part of the European Network for a Fairer Sharing of Time. Sign up here.

Appetite for working time reduction is growing among businesses. Being on the front foot as a progressive employer will increasingly mean reducing working hours, with pay for those on low and median incomes protected, as a means to boosting staff wellbeing, retention and potentially productivity. One of the largest examples in the UK is the Wellcome Trust, which recently committed to reviewing the feasibility of moving its 800 employees to a four-day week. Businesses and organisations of all sizes have contacted NEF for advice and support. We are exploring creating a business network to provide peer support – please get in touch if you would like to be involved.

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