“The Case For A Four Day Week”

A Q&A with economist and author Anna Coote on why time is not a luxury, but a necessary tool for a healthy democracy and social equity.

EDITOR’s NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AA four-day workweek may seem impossible, naive, maybe even at odds with the American identity. Money making the world go ‘round and playing a role in the ceaseless orbit of production and consumption can feel like a lifeforce, the crux of our meaning.

Anna Coote joined the New Economics Foundation in London in 2007 to try and bring social justice into the foreground of their policy work, helping the practical meet the seemingly impossible — a world where equity and environmental sustainability is our foundation.

Her book “The Case for a Four Day Week” — co-authored with Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling — isn’t merely a vision however, it’s designed as a practical roadmap of transition, outlining everything from combating burnout and fostering shared caregiving between men and women, to safeguarding earnings for the lower-paid and why time is not a luxury, but a necessary tool for a healthy democracy.

Coote and her collaborators upend the notion of normal — challenging the idea that the status quo is “natural or inevitable and, by implication, right and irreversible,” and instead asks us to question what this belief is predicated on. History? Certainly. But also a complicated system of cultural beliefs that is, in many ways, more difficult to unravel than writing new policies.

“There is no law for the number of working hours required to generate ‘success.’ What matters is not just productivity, but who gains and how.” Coote and her colleagues “reject the assumption that we live to work, work to earn, and strive to earn more in order buy more things because that’s supposed to be good for the economy. After all, the whole point of economic activity is to serve the interests of people and the planet — not the other way around.”

I got the chance to speak with Anna in her home in London, where she let me pick her brilliant brain on the intersection of time and social justice, and the surprising sea change COVID is bringing to the workforce.

KATIE: So how did this book come into being?

ANNA: The whole thing about the shorter working week, we started work on that in 2010 when we published a document called 21 hours.

The idea was 21 hours for the 21st century — we wanted to be radical about a proposal to reduce the working week. And it really hit a spot for lots of people — particularly in the United States — I guess it’s because you work such long hours over there. But it got a lot of traction, a lot of publicity.

We came across all sorts of organizations and campaigns who were trying to move this forward — mainly towards a four-day week — a 30 hour week — or its equivalent spread across the month for a year, the week, depending. It’s not just about a four-day week and that’s what everyone should have — it should be flexible.

KATIE: Everyone should have the agency to choose how they spend their time.

ANNA: Yes, geared towards the needs of individuals and not something that’s blanketed onto people.

The pandemic made a big difference. For the first time, people started to experience different work patterns. And, employers started to experience having to organize their workforce in different ways.

Not in all workplaces by any means because there are a lot of key workers who just went on doing what they’d always done because they had to — whether in hospitals, on buses, things like that. The idea of working in a different manner, having a different relationship between the workplace and the rest of your life — it all changed for very many people.

When there were lock-down restrictions, that upped the ante — it made it much more interesting and immediate and realizable.

That’s really where we are at now. What we’ve been trying to do with our research is to gather evidence about what the advantages are in terms of society, economy, and environment. Why could it make a difference?

It’s not just about getting a better work-life balance for women, it’s about transforming gender relations. It isn’t just about getting some employers to do things differently, but it’s about changing up views about what really matters in life — how much is enough? It’s about getting people out of the fast lane and moving into living and valuing things differently.

KATIE: I feel like there’s overwhelming evidence — research, case studies, anecdotal human interviews — that working too much is detrimental to our well-being.

But being an American and knowing how deeply people make synonymous their personal worth with their level of productivity, a society that tells you checking your email is the first thing you should do upon being conscious in the morning…these cultural elements in some ways feel the trickiest to address.

The big mythos of America — people like Elon Musk saying, “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” It all feels so embedded in our relationship with our identity and our relationship to time.

ANNA: We know that being overworked is not very good for your mental wellbeing. And that’s helping to shift priorities about what matters. We’re certainly more aware of mental health than we were even five years ago, It’s become much more visible.

“In the UK, the total number of days lost in 2018 through absenteeism attributed to work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 15.4 million, an increase of nearly 3 million on the year before…in Japan, an estimated 10,000 workers are said to die every year as a result of over-long hours of work. Indeed the problem even has its own name: karoshi.” — A Case for a Four Day Week

The question of what is time and how do we relate to time and what does it mean to us — I think that’s all still pretty buried in conventions. I think more people have got a sense of impending catastrophe when it comes to the environment and the need to ask more urgent questions about what life is all about.

The whole thing about how we care for each other, how we care for the natural environment, whether life is just about going out to work and earning as much money as we possibly can to buy more stuff so that we can impress other people or somehow achieve a status. This is all, I think, much more in flux now than it was ten years ago.

But I think you’re right to situate the issue of time in this collection of thoughts. I think it’s very important to put it there.

KATIE: In the book you also talk about the fact that when you have time, it means you also have the bandwidth to participate in democracy, to question the systems that you’re participating in…

ANNA: I feel very strongly about this, and I think it’s less developed in the general discussions about shorter working hours, but it’s terribly important for the health of a democracy, for people to have enough time to get themselves informed, to go to meetings, to talk to other people, to go on demonstrations, to write to their representatives, all those things that a lot of people are just too busy to do.

Time to be angry and to get angry and to express their anger if they feel that they’re not being well treated.

If you’re really busy, you don’t want to get involved in politics or you want a kind of politics where no one’s causing you any trouble. Democracy should be about engagement and discussion and difference. Decent democracy takes time, no doubt about that.

KATIE: There’s obviously a lot of climate change anxiety and hand-wringing about it. And this was another fascinating point you made in the book. Because we don’t have any time, we consistently make these choices predicated on convenience, which in part is also status — we can just go and get whatever we want and need at our fingertips…

But having more time isn’t just about, I’m going to lie on the grass — well maybe for some of it! — but about being able to make conscientious, deliberate choices that in turn, really impact the environment.

ANNA: Nearly all the things you would go out and buy because you’re busy, are energy-intensive.

Whether it’s a ready meal or a new gadget that will save you time in the kitchen or because you want a car to get somewhere quickly instead of going on the bus — all these fast lane consumption patterns are energy-intensive.

If you’re really concerned about cutting carbon, cutting the ecological footprint, you’re probably going to go towards more shared eating spaces and kitchens, for example. Then it would take time to do our shifts, to cook for more people, to do the clearing up afterwards — we’d have to organize it! And that would mean meeting each other and talking about it. And that would take time as well!

If we’re working all hours, we’re not going to do that kind of thing.

KATIE: I had the chance to interview Silvia Federici and she talked a lot about communing resources and how that was a silver lining of COVID. People were at home and better able to take care of one another. People were cooking for one another, offering makeshift mutual aid. It was under duress, but there was also real community being fostered. And I do think there is a new paradigm emerging — employers will be hard-pressed to ask people to come back to any sort of “normal” 40-hours a week in the office job…

ANNA: There are those who cannot abide to be told to sit in the chair for 40 hours a week and the people who’ve got no option and don’t have the power or the choice. And that’s also something we have to find ways to guard against. It’s not just about shorter hours of work. It’s about the whole big picture of, what kind of a society do we want?

What we’re trying to do is not just to get people to have more disposable time for themselves, but also to recover from our obsession with banning decent pay. There are people who can only put food on the table and a roof over their heads by working all hours and having two jobs, so how much pay you get per hour is really central to this whole shift, this whole movement.

You can’t really think about shorter hours without also thinking about what’s enough money for people to live on. How can we make sure everyone can earn enough even if they’re working 30 hours or less?

You think about people who work on the boards of multinational corporations — they’ll be paid extraordinary, eye-watering amounts of money and only work maybe one day a week for it. So we’ve got that. In other settings, working long hours and lots of money is what status is all about.

The more you earn, the longer you work, the more you can buy, the better your status. So we need to change that.

KATIE: When people conceive of the four-day workweek, they don’t necessarily see it as being synonymous with a push for equity. It’s more like, “that would be really nice, yes, I think we all work too much, but it’s not explicitly connected to being a social justice issue….”

ANNA: If I was asked what to do about gender inequality, think this would be one of the first things I would talk about because as we say in the book, we know that there have been laws in favor of gender equality for many decades now, but it’s proved a very intractable problem and at the core of it is this thing about paid and unpaid labor and the division of time between men and women, particularly in households with families, with children.

But the shorter working week isn’t just for women, it’s for the men as well. It frees up time for men to spend time looking after the kids, looking out for the household, sharing all those functions with women. And it also frees women up to get more involved in the labor market.

It’s one of those pressure points where the unequal division of paid and unpaid time between men and women is right there as a huge barrier towards greater equality of income and power. Also, there’s the point about men being exiled from their homes and families, because they’re supposed to work such long hours — and that’s a great loss for men because they don’t get involved with their children, they become one-sided in their experience.

A shorter working week is one way in which you would begin to break through this really difficult barrier to gender equality.

When it comes to class equality, you’ve got to go with a two-pronged approach, tackling low pay and hours at the same time. You can’t do one without the other — the campaign for a fair living wage alongside the campaign for reduced working time.

KATIE: Right, they have to run parallel! OK, before I let you go, was there anything that surprised you in putting this book together? And what does the future hold — what are you working on now?

ANNA: Obviously none of us had envisaged a global pandemic that would completely disrupt the patterns of working time, of work, and of how that might open up the chance for real shifts in attitudes, across populations, across the world.

It would take a long time to explain and I haven’t got very much more time myself‚ it’s been a very busy day —

the irony shouldn’t escape either of us! — but what I’m working on now is what we call social guarantee. And in a nutshell, what I’m trying to do is to remind people, or make people more aware of the value of how we need to organize the economy around meeting people’s needs. It’s very closely aligned with communing, actually.

It’s what we have a right to as individuals — the right to have our needs met. And you can’t do that just by giving people cash. We need to work together, pool resources, and share risks, to make sure everyone gets what they need. It’s about collective action. It’s about in-kind benefits as well as cash. It’s an antidote to universal basic income.

You can read about it on socialguarantee.org

We say, if we’re going to have a green new deal, it must deliver social justice as well. And this is how you do it.

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