Insight & Analysis

Hello to the three-day weekend

Published: Dec 2021

With the UK’s Atom Bank moving to a four-day work week, one economist argues that it is good for the economy, and we should all be working this way. He has the rallying cry of ‘Friday is the New Saturday’, which is also the title of the book that lays out his proposal.

Three day weekend written in sand on a beach

What would you do if you were given an extra day off? What if it was every week? Perhaps you would rest and be more sprightly – and productive – when you returned to work on the Monday. Or maybe you’d go out and enjoy your leisure time, spending money and increasing your consumption in the process. What about taking the time to learn new skills, which could make you more innovative or creative?

Whatever you choose to do with that spare day, it would be good for the economy. That’s the argument that Pedro Gomes, a reader in economics at Birkbeck, University of London, outlines in his recent book. Although it is aimed at an audience that takes Saturday and Sunday as the weekend, with its title of ‘Friday is the New Saturday’, he lays out clearly why we should all be having a three-day weekend.

Gomes takes his inspiration from economist John Maynard Keynes, who, in a 1930 essay, predicted that we’d all be working 15 hours a week because technology would have advanced so much that we would be able to work less. And we’d want to work less. Things didn’t pan out that way, and although the four-day work week has been proposed a number of times, the idea hasn’t gained traction. There are some outliers, such as the UK’s Atom Bank, which announced in November 2021 that it was moving to a four-day week without cutting anyone’s pay.

In 1970 there was the 4/40 idea – four days, 40 hours a week – being trialled at about 30 companies. They reported a rise in productivity, fewer sick days, happier workers and greater job satisfaction. The idea didn’t take off, however, although it was revisited in the 1980s as a solution to unemployment.

More recently, in 2018, Robert Grosse, a professor of business administration at Arizona State University, wrote The Four-Day Workweek, a modern-day version of the 4/40 proposal, although he suggests a 32-hour week.

There is usually resistance to such thinking. What about the work that needs to be done on that fifth day? How can companies afford it if they pay their staff the same wages? Gomes writes, “If you are wondering whether everyone would take a 20% pay cut by working a day less, the answer is no. The large majority of workers would not have any wage cuts. Surely this is too good to be true, or some form of economic dark magic? I can assure you it is neither.”

Similar arguments were raised when the five-day work week was first introduced. Henry Ford made the shock decision to move his motor company from six to five days in 1926, which affected 99% of his staff. He reportedly said at the time the workers “come back after a two-day holiday so fresh and keen that they are able to put their minds as well as their hands into their work”. This five-day week was later expanded and put into law in 1938 in the US, in a bid to tackle unemployment. The UK by comparison was much slower to adopt the shorter work week.

As for moving to the four-day work, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called it a “crackpot plan”. Gomes counters that this is a lazy argument. Elsewhere he quotes Keynes: “The biggest problem is not to let people accept new ideas, but to let them forget the old ones”.

So, what will you do with those extra days off?

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