Press Releases

Average weekly hours fell faster between 1946 and 1979 than post-1980

New analysis from the New Economics Foundation shows the UK would have been on target to reach a 4‑day week week by 2040 had average hours continued to fall after 1980 in line with the initial post-war trend

The UK would have been on target to reach a 30-hour-week (equivalent to a 4‑day week relative to 2016) by 2040 had average hours continued to fall after 1980 in line with the initial post-war trend, according to new forecast modelling published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) today.

During the three decades following world war two, a combination of increased pay and productivity, strong collective bargaining and increased labour market regulation from government saw the average full-time week in the UK fall steadily from 46 hours in 1946 to 40 hours by 1979.

From 1980 onwards, however, this trend faltered following labour market deregulation, reduced collective bargaining and slower earnings growth for low income workers and the average full-time week fell by just 2.5 hours to an average of 37.5 hours by 2016.

Alongside policy-makers, civil society organisations, businesses and unions (CSEU, CWU, TUC and Unite), NEF is launching a programme of work to flesh out a framework for how a shorter working week could be achieved in the UK. The new programme of work will be launched in Parliament today with speeches from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP, Sharon Graham Executive Officer, Unite), Ian Waddell (General Secretary, CSEU), Angela Whitter (a Postal delivery office employee and CWU branch secretary) and Amie Sparrow who works for an organisation with 30+ employees who are trialling a four day week.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP said:

We welcome this interesting work from NEF and vital contribution to the growing debate around working time.

Labour is looking closely at this area of policy, which is why I have commissioned Robert Skidelsky to undertake an inquiry into Shorter Working Time, to report by the summer. We look forward to Lord Skidelsky’s recommendations which will inform our thinking on how we face the issues of both over-employment and under-employment and how we address the challenges of automation.”

Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, said:
A 4‑day week day week is an idea whose time has come. This common sense policy would be good for people, good for the planet and good for society. A 4‑day week would not only help Britain face the rise of automation by spreading work around, but it would also give people a better quality of life by freeing up time to spend with their families, undertaking unpaid work and doing what makes them happy. With the UN warning time is running out to tackle the climate crisis a shorter working week would also help Britain meet its climate targets.

Greens were the first in Westminster to champion a 4‑day week — it’s great to see the idea gain support and we are committed to seeing it become a reality. It’s time the Government took note and explored how a 4‑day week day week could help deliver a better, healthier future world of work for everyone.”

Alice Martin, Head of Work and Pay at the New Economics Foundation, said:

The threat of technological unemployment, stalled UK productivity growth, an ageing society and growing care demands are all driving the debate about a shorter working week – something the New Economics Foundation has long argued for and that today we are launching a new programme of work on.

There are no natural laws dictating how long we all spend in work. It might feel like it sometimes, but really it is a collective decision we can make, as a society. Reducing the amount of time we all spend in work whilst protecting incomes wields potential benefits for some of the major economic and societal challenges faced today such as ailing social care, unaffordable childcare and a mental health crisis related to overwork and stress. Business can also benefit through higher levels of per employee productivity, better staff retention and wellbeing.

“ A shorter working week isn’t a silver bullet solution to all our economic woes — it needs to be negotiated and rolled out gradually — and come hand in hand with strategies to sure up collective voice at work to deal with issues like the increased insecurity and low pay of many new jobs created. But this shouldn’t stand in the way of having a collective ambition to improve our work/​life balance — and there is huge momentum now building behind this.

In many workplaces and sectors the change is already happening, we’re working with employers trialling shorter working hours and are keen to encourage and support more to do the same.”


Sofie Jenkinson, 07981023031

Notes to Editors

Source: NEF analysis based on Bank of England 2018 and ONS 2019

Trends and projections of UK working hours are based on new NEF regression analysis of data from Bank of England (2018) A millennium of macroeconomic data’ https://​www​.bankofeng​land​.co​.uk/​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​c​s​/​r​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​-​d​a​t​asets and computed on a consistent basis with ONS (2019) Average actual weekly hours of work for full-time workers (seasonally adjusted)’ https://​www​.ons​.gov​.uk/​e​m​p​l​o​y​m​e​n​t​a​n​d​l​a​b​o​u​r​m​a​r​k​e​t​/​p​e​o​p​l​e​i​n​w​o​r​k​/​e​a​r​n​i​n​g​s​a​n​d​w​o​r​k​i​n​g​h​o​u​r​s​/​t​i​m​e​s​e​r​i​e​s​/​y​b​u​y/lms 

NEF will be developing a new evidence base including modelling the economic impacts of working time reduction in terms of wealth, productivity, inequality and incomes, as well as producing new resources building on the timely report by Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign of which NEF is a supporter.

Alongside policy-makers, civil society organisations, businesses and unions (CSEU, CWU, TUC and Unite), NEF will be fleshing out a framework for how a shorter working week could be achieved in the UK – based around the following four principles:

  1. Collectively: trade unions and businesses are at the heart of the transition, negotiating and collectively agreeing reductions to working hours at the level of workplaces and in some instances sectors. We are also exploring a place-based approach, for example working with public, business and civil society partners to reduce working hours in a defined city/​town or borough.
  2. Gradually: working hours reduction needs to be implemented gradually alongside efforts to strengthen wage levels across the economy. For some sectors facing medium-term challenges, such as high-carbon industry in a decarbonising UK or technological unemployment, the opportunity presented by the shorter working week may add a particular urgency.
  3. Involving both policy change and sector vanguards: ensuring that the principle of working-time reduction is baked into the rules of the economy to support the efforts of sector vanguards and ensure that gains are institutionalised and shared. This Spring we will publish a policy paper looking at how government levers could support a gradual and inclusive transition to a shorter working week that is responsive to changes in the economy.
  4. As part of broader reforms: it will be necessary to tackle a range of issues in tandem, including low pay, inequalities, employers’ incentives, and prevailing assumptions about what is normal’ and possible. Reducing the working week is not a silver bullet solution to work and pay issues, and cannot be seen in isolation from broader issues – in particular from the reversal of policies that have curbed the influence of unions, as well as bolstering the welfare state.

Sign up for updates on NEF’s campaign for a shorter working week here: https://​newe​co​nom​ics​.org/​s​u​b​s​c​r​i​b​e​/​s​h​o​r​t​e​r​-​w​o​r​k​i​n​g​-week

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