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Don't Slave Your Life Away: Why America Should Embrace a 4-Day Work Week

Workers today are expected to be on call 24/7.

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America is stumbling into the abyss of unheard-of income and wealth disparity. The lack of jobs and the offensive distance between the wealth of Wall Street and the plight of the 99 percent are pressing down on a workforce that includes both displaced industrial labor and unemployed educated professionals who still feel entitled to lucrative posts in what Richard Florida calls “an idea-driven knowledge economy that runs more on brains than on brawn.” We’re learning that while this “knowledge economy” exists, in reality it’s present for only the few who can serve the esoteric and rapidly changing demands of high-tech industries. Facebook might ultimately be valued at $50 billion, but it makes no product and employs only a few thousand workers. As Richard Waters wrote in the Financial Times, “While the jobs of the future have yet to be revealed, the job losses and disruption to working lives from accelerating technological change are already apparent.”

Reconfiguring Work in Democracy

It is tempting to imagine—even to recommend—changes in the character of labor and the workplace that would restore satisfying, meaningful work as a central part of life: the way Ruskin, Marx and Morris envisioned it a century and a half ago. But that would be naive. As historian Jackson Lears said in a recent interview, “Whatever the color of your collar, your job may still be ‘proletarian’ to the extent that management controls the pace, process, and output of your work.”

Lears is right, and I think the march of management efficiencies in the direction of increased productivity cannot be rolled back. Apart from a handful of artistic careers, the sad truth is that deeply satisfying work for pay is squeezed-out toothpaste that can’t be coaxed back into its tube.

My suggestion is this: that Americans recover the satisfaction of artisanship by stepping to the side, building the kind of meaning found in craft work outside the office, classroom, or factory. More than anything, the pursuit of meaning in the contemporary market-defined environment requires time. Technology in the workplace holds out the promise of more time, but as we have seen, increased productivity— more output; fewer hours—benefits only the bottom lines of corporate profits wrung from the decreased cost of labor. Unions and concerned, engaged citizens must press for public policies that enable workers to capture time, benefiting from efficiencies generated by piecework and automated devices. But I don’t believe our modern workplace can be reconfigured from the outside, and the corporate world has exhibited little interest in resisting global pressures on hours and wages to give American labor a better quality of life.

Here’s an alternative: A properly configured and fairly implemented four-day workweek would shift at least some of the time-saving benefits of high-tech devices to workers. And given an imaginatively assembled array of possibilities, the extra time attached to a weekend will offer a pathway to a life of quality and meaning.

Where the four-day workweek has been tried in the United States, results have actually been encouraging. Utah launched a four-day, 10-hour-day week for state employees in 2008. Seventy percent of workers liked it, mostly because the extended personal time facilitated volunteer work and closer contact within families. Although the statewide program ended in the fall of 2011 (anticipated savings on energy never materialized), cities such as Provo retained the policy. Google has established a four-day week for some engineers, specifically to enable opportunity for creative thought.

It’s important to remember that experiments with short workweeks have to date been advanced only as money-saving strategies. (Are you surprised?) However, given the acceptance of these early efforts, it seems certain that a four-day workweek (perhaps featuring nine-hour days) focused not on cost cutting but on enriching quality of life would be even more welcome. And it’s important to a handmade America; extra time in which to connect with politics, new knowledge, community heritage, religion, and family will lay the foundation for an American lifestyle less slavishly ensnared in consuming and debt.

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