Monday, December 9, 2019
Dec. 9, 2019

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Four-day workweek affords workers valuable free time

So far, idea has failed to take hold among American left, labor movement

By
Published: July 11, 2019, 6:41pm

The women at the Belgian nonprofit Femma decided quickly how to spend their new free time. Onetook up Spanish classes. Another studied flamenco dance. A senior manager revived her interest in art crafts.

Four years ago, the feminist advocacy organization polled its 60,000 female members on their biggest frustrations. The results were remarkably consistent, regardless of age: The women wanted more free time. Between work and their disproportionate share of the household and child-care responsibilities, the women reported having little time for themselves.

So as a one-year experiment starting in January, Femma implemented a 30-hour workweek for its approximately 60-person staff, which effectively means most take their Fridays off. The employees are being closely followed through December by Free University of Brussels researchers, who are studying the impact of more leisure time on both the women and their children.

“Our colleagues are very happy with this new situation; they’re experiencing a lot more freedom,” said Eva Brumagne, the director of the Belgian nonprofit, who has started a book club focused on modern literature. “They have a much more balanced life, new hobbies and are spending more time with their children. People are saying their lives have slowed down.”

Femma’s experiment comes as part of a new push across much of Europe to reduce working hours, including through a four-day workweek. For much of this decade, the idea of a four-day week has been primarily championed by industry executives in certain business niches — such as those in software development or sales — as a way to boost employee morale and hourly productivity.

But over the past several years, particularly in Europe, trade unions, leftist organizations and some academics have increasingly called for a far broader, economy-wide transition to the four-day week as a way to give workers a larger share of the benefits of growth.

Typically, critics of capitalism have called for redistributing the wealth it produces through higher taxes, government programs and a higher minimum wage. At least in theory, cutting working hours is another method of addressing the same problem — the unequal results of economic growth — but by reallocating time to workers, rather than money.

“For the first time since the start of last century, there’s real energy behind a politics of reducing working time,” said Peter Gowan, a policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative, a left-leaning think tank.

Americans work more than Western peers

Americans currently work more hours annually than any of their Western peers, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data compiled for a forthcoming paper by the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, about strategies to reduce working hours.

Reducing American working hours to levels in Norway and Denmark would amount to giving U.S. workers more than an additional two months of vacation every year, the think-tank found in a separate report in 2018. In 2016, the average U.S. worker spent about 1,700 hours on the job, while in Denmark and Norway they spent about 1,400 hours — about an 18 percent difference. In Sweden and Finland, the number is closer to 1,600 hours worked annually.

In Europe, signs abound of interest in continuing to cut working hours. The four-day week has won backing from some of the biggest unions in Ireland and Britain, while plans to dramatically cut working hours have been embraced by large unions in Germany, the Netherlands and France.

But so far, the idea has failed to gain significant attention from the American left or labor movement.

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