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

The following is an excerpt from Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy by Bill Ivey.

The Perpetual Workday

Jill Andresky Fraser’s book White-Collar Sweatshop details the movement of factory floor, scientific-management-style techniques into the office. Overall real wages scarcely budged in the 1990s, and earnings for college-educated workers actually declined by more than 6 percent. We might surmise that the lack of salary increases were offset, in part, by noncash benefits, but these too were extracted from the compensation package. “Lunch hour? An anachronism. Commuting time? A good chance to return phone calls. Sleep? Never mind if you were up until 2am on the phone with a client across the globe. Be at the office at eight.

"These days, workers are expected to be on call 24/7—24 hours per day, seven days per week,” writes Fraser. Seen in this light, innovations like flex time or working from home are in fact strategies to bring new sorts of workers—think women—into the job market and to subject them to a new set of (frequently electronic) rules and controls.

Think about it. Fifteen years ago, would you have taken a job if you had to be available every day, respond to messages from your boss late at night, and maintain contact with the office while on vacation? You would probably have taken a pass. But today just about any job, especially the good ones, exhibit precisely this oppressive 24/7 character.

It’s a corrosive double whammy: At the same time as technology has redefined labor by converting craft occupations into assembly line piecework, new gadgets have allowed our less inviting piecework tasks to follow us home, invading our bedrooms, filling family time, distracting us on holiday. This change in the character of work took place very quickly. As technology critic Jaron Lanier observed, “It’s as if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole village before you can even rise to your feet.”

Americans are suckers for new technologies. We cheerfully purchased the Sony Walkman (how quickly we forget!) and embraced digital cameras, cell phones, plasma TVs, smart phones, and now iPads. Just as we’ve consumed high-tech gadgets at home, we welcome electronic devices in the workplace; won’t they save precious time by making us more efficient? Our enthusiasm for innovative machines obscures the truth that all they do is bind us more tightly to our jobs while forcing us to work longer hours.

For centuries, work has been the arena of accomplishment in which learning and insight combined skills of mind and hand to solve problems, bringing forward something useful, beautiful, or both. Back when women entered the workforce in big numbers at every level, it seemed the importance of labor as a source of meaning and identity only increased. But the financial collapse of 2008 produced profound, perhaps lasting, changes in American labor markets. As Clive Crook argues, there exists a real “likelihood that lengthening spells of unemployment [will] become self-perpetuating, as skills erode or grow irrelevant.” State governments are attempting to balance budgets by sacking teachers, nurses, and police officers, and underwater mortgages have made it impossible for millions of workers to sell houses to relocate in search of new jobs. As Tyler Cowen writes, “We need to be prepared for the possibility that the growth slowdown could continue once the immediate recession is over.”

We know that real wages have been flat for more than two decades. Technology-enabled productivity increased, but that hasn’t helped workers. Productivity per person-hour increased by 5 percent between 2009 and 2010—postrecession—but productivity went up because the number of hours worked went down. So for the past 10 years, workers substituted charge cards and home equity loans for stagnant wages to maintain what seemed to be a middle-class lifestyle. That era of self-delusion is over and has been replaced by doubt, disappointment, pessimism, and a deep suspicion of financial and political power. In an unprecedented development, millions of newly minted college graduates are moving directly from the classroom to the unemployment lines and sometimes to the encampments of Occupy Wall Street. American workers now compete in the much-touted global market; it is a distinct irony that not Marxists but corporate leaders urge the workers of the world to unite in a drive toward efficiency—efficiency that can be best defined as low wages.

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.

Technology and Education

Our ability to live well in a progressive, handmade society depends on what we know and believe; much of that knowledge must be applied to placing the transformational impact of technology in perspective.

True, Americans have enthusiastically welcomed new devices at home and at work. But today technology is generating powerful imbalances in society and government, transforming the place of Americans in a global economy. We have both a right and an obligation to challenge the effect of automation, software, robotics, and the Internet on how we labor and live.

Former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich gets one thing absolutely right: “Modern technologies allow us to shop in real time, often worldwide, for the lowest prices, highest quality, and best returns.” Unfortunately, “these great deals come at the expense of our jobs and wages, and widening inequality.”

Stated most simply, high-tech machines enable fewer workers to do more while transforming complex artisanal tasks into piecework. Americans love to shop for bargain commodities, of course, but corporations also shop for labor, and modern technology and communication force workers to compete with lower-paid counterparts in Singapore, India, and China. Even here in the United States, an auto assembly job that pays $28 an hour in Michigan will pay half that in South Carolina.

It’s obvious that the average “working Joe” needs a better understanding of how the workplace is being transformed by technologies deployed by corporations in the pursuit of efficiencies, increased productivity, and increased profit. A couple years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks worried about these effects in a piece cleverly and accurately titled “The Outsourced Brain.” What does it mean for society if we don’t know where we are, where we should eat, or whether or not it’s raining without looking at our telephones? And it’s a special problem in the workplace; a cab driver who can navigate only with a GPS is a qualitatively different professional than the London artisan cabbie who’s memorized streets from Paddington to Elephant and Castle. In addition, “Productivity Hits All-Time High” may be a mogul-pleasing headline, but less-in/more-out is scarcely good news for workers. And as we’ve seen, automation, digital devices, and software-driven menus not only displace jobs but change the very character of work itself.

Of course, technological change has been a feature of civilization since before the printing press, and the destruction of the old has always accompanied progress; illuminated calligraphy is pretty much a thing of the distant past. However, the digital age is unusual, if not unique, in that it has been advanced by the tag team of powerful corporate interests aided by massive advertising campaigns, supported by a cohort of intellectual apologists who praise every new device and vigorously attack any Luddite bold enough to question the real value of the newest netbook, iPhone, or online music service. This combination—big advertising supported by reasonably big minds—is something new, and it’s enabled digital advocates to pretty much have their way in the workplace and at home. Who has critiqued computers in the classroom? Evidence of helpful results is scarce, but as one ex-marine teacher put it, “This technology is being thrown on us. It’s being thrown on parents and thrown on kids.” Americans need a general understanding of the way efficient technologies affect the availability of jobs and the meaning of labor, and an understanding that society can rightly use the levers of government to blunt the most troublesome transformations in a defining human activity—work.

So here’s the second, and more specific, point: American education must better address the needs of our present-day economy. Early in 2012, I heard an NPR All Things Considered piece on the burgeoning Montana firearms industry. The segment interviewed the president of Montana Rifleman, a small manufacturing firm that, responding to a U.S. firearms boom, was then shipping up to 1,000 rifle barrels per day. He indicated that there “are plenty of workers, but he still struggles to fill certain jobs,” adding, “Finding skilled machinists is one of the hardest things for us to do right now.” This problem is widespread.

Tyler Cowen has identified a “fundamental skills mismatch”  in the relationship between school and the workplace. American secondary education has drifted toward precollege for all, an objective memorialized in a commitment to standardized testing. Yes, we need mathematicians and good readers, but we need high school graduates skilled in information technology, high-end machining, and a range of other technical manufacturing skills that fit the new economy. This is not rocket science; it’s not test taking either.

President Obama has underscored the role of community colleges in providing high-end workplace skills. On its face, this seems a good idea; community colleges are affordable, are open to just about anyone, and are often hardwired into the demands of a local economy. But as

Thomas Bailey has written in the American Prospect, community institutions are filled with first-generation college students who often work full-time while attending school at night. Their preparation for college work is frequently subpar; it’s no surprise that graduation or certification rates after six years are well below 40 percent. Community colleges are also especially dependent on state funding and despite increased federal support are suffering as states slash budgets in this postrecession decade. Rethinking the high school curriculum may be smarter, more affordable, and more effective than a buck-pass to two-year colleges.

I do believe there’s a need for a better match between secondary education and the apparent needs of the workplace. But to be honest, I’m uncomfortable with arguments that talk about improving education— especially public education—entirely within the context of the economy and America’s workforce. The values and needs of corporations have thoroughly invaded the conversation about education, and you don’t have to scratch the surface of most reforms very hard before a narrow agenda shows up: math plus reading plus multiple-choice tests produces graduates perfectly suited to technology-enabled, rule-following piecework.

Despite the desires of corporate oligarchs, education can’t be only about popping out capable worker bees. Our very democracy depends on the maintenance of a citizenry capable of critical engagement with technology and change, society and democracy; an engagement with context and precedent—an understanding of history, society, finance, and power—sufficient to permit smart choices. We do not get the wise citizens we need if schools do nothing but train workers for our voracious corporate maw.

It’s clear that we went too far back in the 1960s, when experts determined that every student should experience some version of a college preparatory curriculum. When I attended Calumet High School a half century ago, the program offered three tracks: academic, vocational, commercial. “Academic” was pretty much what secondary education looks like today. “Commercial” trained secretaries and bookkeepers; my recollection is that the commercial track was mostly populated by girls. “Vocational” was as distinctly male, its trainees spending half days sequestered in noisy wood and machine shops in the basement of the school. But vocational training at Calumet High was dead serious; the program was hardwired into the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, and graduates could anticipate immediate employment in the (admittedly fading) multifaceted corporation that dominated northern Michigan’s copper mining industry back then.

Now, Calumet’s old three-track system was rife with real and potential inequity. Lip service was applied to the way eighth-graders were slotted according to test scores and individual aptitude and ambition, but there existed plenty of room for ethnic and sexual stereotyping, for making nonacademic tracks way stations for kids who just didn’t fit in. Once placed, nobody ever “got out” by making the transition from commercial or vocational into the (somewhat) exclusive and (slightly) refined reaches of the academic path. But despite obvious flaws, the system wasn’t entirely without value. While academic students were pointed toward college (and an inevitable extension of adolescence), our vocational and commercial peers were destined to grasp their diplomas and immediately head off to work.

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.

Over the past three decades, Western capitalism forgot the lessons the marketplace had learned during the painful leftist rebellions of the early 20th century—namely, that capitalism worked in society only if it was tempered by regulation designed to ensure that everyone got their share. Over the past 30 years, American business grew the unproductive financial services sector, pushed Washington to repeal or ignore nettlesome regulations, and failed to warn workers that the glories of globalization would be accompanied by the loss of millions of jobs here at home. The result has been widespread and nearlyunprecedented dissatisfaction with our financial establishment. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moisés Naím put it, “America’s long, peaceful coexistence with income and wealth inequality is ending."

The danger of our new and unique class of alienated workers and the unemployed is not some kind of revolt but instead the real likelihood that the unemployed—fearful and discontented—will turn toward authoritarian, simple-solution leaders touting isolation, xenophobia, and contempt for the basic workings of democratic government. This is already happening. State legislatures are bearing down on unions and immigrants and advancing bills that secure gun ownership and restrict women’s health services while making it harder for the elderly and poor to vote. In the run-up to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich sounded high-pitched “dog whistle” messages that stirred xenophobia and outright racism. One more shock—a terrorist attack; clear signs of a double-dip recession—and Americans could conceivably lurch so far right that infrastructure, foreign relations, and the cornerstones of what’s left of our egalitarian social safety net could be permanently disabled.

In the summer of 2011, the Financial Times opined that when it came to solving America’s continuing financial challenges, “Further short-term stimulus should be on the table.” Unfortunately, the obvious short-term fix for a flaccid employment picture—a government jobs program focused on infrastructure and education—is not only entirely off the table but, according to budget-slashing members of Congress, not even in the room. We’re left with no real response to a three-year old employment crisis that has morphed into a persistent low-grade flu.

We are living in the sad shadow of unfettered markets, of unquestioned confidence in an unregulated, little-taxed, corporate culture to provide a high quality of life for all.


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