friday

An experiment in Sweden testing a six-hour day has come to an end, the UK Green Party want to see the introduction of a three day week. Do the ideas have merit?

As this article is written, the author feels a little overweight, having spent the four day Easter weekend indulging in far too much food and wine. One thing is for sure, if we were to introduce a four-day weekend – just like the Easter weekend, the author would need to change his weekend behaviour.

But then that maybe a symptom of how rare such occasions are. If every weekend was like that, maybe we would all do something of long-term benefit with our new found free time.

But there is an obvious flaw. And you have almost certainly spotted it. If we were to work forty per cent less days, presumably our output would be 40 per cent less, and our wages 40 per cent less, maybe if we really did see the introduction of a three-day week we would be too poor to enjoy the free time.

And if you are an entrepreneur, or run a small business having a four-day weekend may seem like the stuff that pipedreams are made of, indeed even two day weekends may be a rarity.

But supposing it could be shown that cutting the working week down to three days, would have no knock-on effect on output – that our output per hour would rise so much that it made up for the fact we are working less hours?

It’s not a new idea. Keynes, surely, the greatest economist of the 20th century, and actually one of the finest minds the UK has ever produced – reckoned that by now we would be living a life of leisure – technology would have reduced the imperative to work so hard.

John Pencavel at Stanford University has looked in this very idea, and his conclusion is that the optimal working week is around 50 hours. Work longer than that, and additional output increases at an ever-slower rate, but up to that point, each additional hour worked leads to a proportional increase in output. Indeed, the study goes further, and seems to show that if you are working much less than 35 hours, you are working at below optimal efficiency. See page 45 of http://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdfthis report, for more.

But not all agree.

In Sweden, a slightly different idea has been tested: a six-hour day.

The experiment was conducted at the Svartedalens care facility for the elderly in Gothenburg. The experiment was held over a two-year period, and did indeed show benefits – staff took off less time for sickness, for example. In fact, it turned out that they took off 4.7 per cent fewer sick days.

And yet, the study has come to an end, and its back to full working weeks at the centre.

So, does that mean the test did not yield the results that were hoped for? Alas the study was inconclusive, yes, the quality of care at the time went up, but so did its costs relating to having to employ more members of staff.

Meanwhile, the UK Green party wants to see a three-day week.

The case to support the plan comes in several packages.

There is an excellent book out at the moment – Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. The author cites the example of W.K Kellogg who cut the working week at his factory in Michigan to a six-hour day during the 1930s. The accident rate fell by 41 per cent, output per hour shot up. Kellogg told a local newspaper that the “unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formally paid for eight.” This begs the question, of course, why didn’t the company continue with the practice?

Or take the example of the three-day week, enforced upon the UK in the mid-1970s under the Ted Heath government. This was the time of the miners’ strike, and yet, during this period total production across the economy contracted by a mere six per cent.

It turns out it used to be different. In the Middle Ages in Britain no less than a third of the year was given over to holidays – festivals, for example. In other parts of Europe, it was even higher.

It is tempting to predict that as technology advances, the six-hour day and three day working week will become accepted practice. It is just that the famously clever Keynes had predicted that such a time would come to pass before the end of the 20th century.