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The 4-Day Work Week Is The Solution To All Our Problems

What is the point of work?

Ask a philosopher and they’ll give you a range of answers from humans requiring purpose to communal efforts to -- and we’ll all stop them there and say “The end of labour is to gain leisure”.

We work to get money to do the things we want.

Earlier this year, Microsoft ran an experiment in a country seen -- at least in our cultural stereotypes -- as one of the least work-shy: Japan. They cut down the work week to four days instead of five, maintaining everyone’s salary at the pre-cut level. What happened? Sales per employee rose by 40 percent period-on-period, printing and electricity costs dropped, and there was overwhelming happiness with the scheme.

It’s not just Japan: America’s Shake Shack is trialling the idea, the UK Labour Party are looking into it and a New Zealand trusts and advisory firm have announced they’re doing this “work 30 hours, get paid 37.5” on a permanent opt-in basis.

Look around your workplace and imagine the lights off an extra day per week. Does it seem feasible?

Will Australia adopt a 4-day work week? Who knows! (Image: Getty)

Maybe not, but then broad-ranging social change often doesn’t seem feasible until suddenly we have eight-hour workdays, five-day work weeks and annual leave as just “normal” things (*cough* thanks unions *cough*). Here’s one marketing tip for this change -- don’t call it a “day off”. Give it another name instead. The opposite of “being at work” isn’t “lying around”, it’s “being able to do whatever you want to with your own time”.

As automation continues its mechanical grind to replace us all in our work roles, doesn’t it make sense to give us all an extra day to pursue our own projects each week? Maybe you’re doing a course of study, spending time with the friends who mean something to you, working on your own project or getting really, really good at first-person shooters. Or golf. Or speaking Italian.

Whatever you dream of doing with your limited hours on his planet, this is the day for it -- instead of a hugely busy Saturday of cleaning, chores and groceries followed by a Sunday recovery and the sick pit of dread in your stomach that five days stretch out ahead and you don’t have enough super to retire.

Of course, just like people used to wonder how we’d get as much done if we stopped everyone working 14-hour days and six-day weeks with one day off for church and a bath. As recently as 1856, stonemasons were marching to Parliament House to push for eight hours.

Perth in 1856. If you look closely, you can see people working 14-hour days. (Image: AAP)

And it was only on New Year’s Day, 1948, that we had a two-day weekend enshrined in law. Back then, the Australian Council of Trade-Unions successfully argued that mechanisation would make up for the shortfall in manhours.

“The true answer to the question of what effect the 40-hour week will have on our national economy lies in our economic experiences since the introduction of the 44-hour week 20 years ago,” said ACTU President PJ Clarey. “The last 20 years have indicated clearly that scientific, technical and organisational progress has continued unabated. There is a natural tendency on the part of industry when costs are rising to find means of reducing them.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So do the arguments against the five-day week, which basically amounted to lost productivity, management having to pick up the slack and concern that this “dangerous” experiment would leave Australia trailing behind her rivals.

There are going to be some logistical challenges to this three-day weekend proposal, but fortunately, we are a hugely adaptable species and have already managed to acclimate to workplaces where it’s common for people to be there for one to three days out of five. Frankly, enshrining a four-day work week seems like less of a challenge than working on projects with colleagues who are only there on Monday, or being a freelancer who doesn’t answer work-based emails on Wednesdays.

I was under the impression you worked Wednesdays. (Image: 20th Century Fox)

There are some other questions to consider as well. Are we replacing Monday or Friday? Because either choice will have different cultural resonances. Monday’s the traditional “long weekend” day, but Friday already sort of feels like a weekend day where you’re forced to pretend to do stuff (or is that just me?). Also, would service industry workers get penalty rates for working on the new weekend day? Also also, can we please have penalty rates back, just in general?

Final question: what would it take for this to actually happen in Australia?

I suspect it would require a few key elements: a groundswell of public support for what amounts to a significant systemic change, more productivity-ratio data from your Microsofts and Shake Shacks (the Microsoft experiment, after all, only went for five weeks and took place in a different country to ours), and a soaringly popular ALP government in charge of both houses and at least a majority of the states, backed by a resurgent, unshackled union movement with a pile of political capital to spend.

Stranger things have happened… and did, in 1948.