The 4 day work week

The concept of a 4 day work week has been gaining steam of late. For example, German workers recently won the right to work a 4 day week if they so choose. Anecdotally, I’ve been noticing articles about it appearing every so often and it’s certainly coming up during conversations with a higher frequency than usual (working “0.8”).

I’m not going to get into the potential economic and social implications of a shorter work week but I have been wondering why the shift is taking place.

The obvious reason is that most people prefer leisure to work, but that has always been the case. So something must have changed, with the most obvious candidate being the economic environment: households are faring well, so many people are happy to trade a day of work for an additional day of leisure. The data support that theory, with unemployment in much of the world approaching record-lows (in the United States it just hit its lowest level since 1969).

In the midst of a recession, for example, I would expect worker desire for a 4 day work week to be low (conversely, employer demand for a 4 day week would rise). But if the labour market is tight, wages are relatively high and good workers are tough to keep, increased worker demand for a 4 day week makes a lot of sense.

So I thought as a purely speculative exercise I would check Google’s search trends for two topics, “4 day week” and “unemployment benefits”. Here are the results:

Google trends 4 day work week

Correlation is not causation and I suspect that the 2008 spike was caused by the opposite force to what we are seeing today. That is, employers trying to cut costs without firing workers or reducing wages were instead offering employees a 4 day week.

So what does the recent spike in searches for a 4 day work week mean, if anything? One possibility is employees, aware that a 4 day week is an option given it was offered to them during the last recession, are using the strong labour market to negotiate for more leisure. Perhaps the extra family time that a 4 day week spurs employee productivity, making it mutually beneficial for the worker and employer. It could be some combination of those two and many other forces.

Whatever the case may be, the sceptic in me sees the increased demand for a 4 day work week as a “top of the cycle” moment. I hope I’m wrong.


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