In 1930, economic maestro John Maynard Keynes predicted that growing global wealth would lead to a standard work week of as little as 15 hours in the world’s developed economies.
In his vision of the future, such would be enough to meet our material needs, and leisure time would by 2030 be the defining characteristic of our national lifestyle.
More people than ever are now working part-time, but by and large this is not through choice. Many would prefer the earning power of a full-time job, which still demands substantially more hours of labour than Keynes believed would be the norm less than 16 years from now. If anything, those in full-time employment are working more, not less.
Modern economists have posited a number of theories as to why Keynes got it so wrong with this particular prediction. One popular (and quite plausible) explanation is that he underestimated the allure of “relative needs” – those things that are not necessary for survival, yet we feel we must have.
Others have suggested that humans have a compulsion for endeavour. Work can be repetitive and boring, but it is also a forum for mixing with others, and an arena where people can get pleasure from their achievements.
Keynes may have overestimated the human desire for leisure, but there is growing evidence that a bit more “me time” would not only benefit employees, but businesses as well.
From the dark days of the Industrial Revolution – when workers considered themselves lucky to have Sunday at their leisure – we have settled into the widely accepted balance of five days on, two off. But could it be that the ideal work week spans just four days?
It’s popular in the Netherlands, where one-third of all men either work part-time or compress their 40-hour week into four days. A number of government agencies and companies in the US have also adopted this format with some interesting results.
They report that cutting back on time in the office boosts the quality of the work produced, with 32 hours of high-calibre effort beating 40-plus of mediocrity. Rather than taking valuable time to shake off the sleepies and come to, staff hit the ground running after a three-day break. Such anecdotes are backed up by research which has found that putting in long hours generates a short-term boost, but after a few weeks productivity actually declines.
The rankings vary somewhat depending upon on the criteria used, but the UK clocks up one of the longest average working weeks of anywhere in Europe. According to figures from the Trades Union Congress, one in five staff put in an extra day a week in unpaid overtime.
The way we work seems almost entwined in our DNA, but there is no reason this should be the case. There are different ways of setting up a four-day week to meet the needs of a particular business, and for those willing to explore the options, the benefits could be significant. «