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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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There existed more than a trace of envy, and an uneasy admiration, for these incubating carpenters, machinists, and draftsmen who were actually learning to do something. As Matt Crawford puts it, “The physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine.”

We must achieve a subtle, realistic balance between education for craft work and education for citizenship. Even if we rework both the intellectual and the vocational mission of secondary education to align learning with the demands of the economy and our twenty-first-century democracy, we can never restore the character of preindustrial labor in which “the worker was presumed to be the master of a body of traditional knowledge, and methods and procedures were left to his or her discretion.”

If work is to enable a life of purpose, we must find meaningful labor outside the office and factory. If the independence, mastery, and satisfaction inherent in craft work have been lost, Americans must open up new opportunities to pursue labor of consequence. John Ruskin wrote, “In order that people may be happy in their work, three things are needed. They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.”

How do we respond to Ruskin’s observations? First we must convert the gains in productivity produced by technology and innovative management into a four-day workweek. If our jobs—even high-end professions—are to be increasingly managed and routine, Americans must simply step aside into choice work that provides sufficient space to study and practice meaningful labor. Our workweek should extend from Monday through Thursday, period.

Second, we must go further in our efforts to reconfigure the way we educate citizens. It’s fine to shift focus toward skills that will earn a living—to follow President Obama’s initiatives linking community colleges with employers, providing college-level courses to some high school students, and outfitting young people with “industry-accepted credentials.” But no matter how well a newly minted worker fits the needs of corporations, we have seen that the marketplace does not provide many opportunities to “live with purpose” through labor.

So we must provide citizens with skills that will enable personal creative practice and deepened engagement with community and cultural heritage. If our occupations have been corrupted by the demands of postindustrial capitalism, we must use extra leisure to engage in activities more meaningful than a modern-day job—activities that approach something like Max Weber’s sense of “vocation.” Richard Sennett characterizes vocation as containing “two resonances: the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills and the ever-stronger conviction that one was meant to do this one particular thing in one’s life.”  Training that advances skills and builds commitment of this sort is hard to relate to today’s cubicled workplace, but it’s especially available in the arts—in music, creative writing, theater, dance, and visual arts.

Given what we now understand about the absence of meaning in most jobs, it should be no surprise that Americans today spend billions each year advancing informal mastery of artisanal skills. Right now, personal creative practice is served primarily by an array of companies providing art supplies, musical instruments, private instruction, and a mind-boggling variety of self-help arts instruction DVDs and downloads.

Arts education in schools has been pushed aside by teach-to-thetest math and reading. If we are to fill a three-day weekend with activity that brings a sense of achievement, mastery, and the joy of creativity, arts training—in the broadest sense—must be relocated to the center of quality education.

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