If You Like the Idea of a 4-Day Workweek, You'll Love the 5-Hour Workday

Some companies are implementing shorter workdays while others are opting for shorter workweeks increasing productivity.

In These Times Editors

ILLUSTRATION BY TERRY LABAN

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five-hour• work•day

noun

1. Transforming the 9 to 5 job into a 9 to 2

How would we get everything done?

Economist John Maynard Keynes, in 1930, predicted his grandchildren would grow up to work just 15 hours a week. Advances in technology and education had already led to an explosion of productivity, after all.

Needless to say, the prediction hasn’t quite worked out as expected. Despite productivity gains in every sector — one study estimates a full day of office work in 1970 can now be completed in an hour and a half — Americans are working more than ever.

That’s because what’s been determining our working hours isn’t our collective material needs, but the pursuit of profit for the ownership class.

Why would employers let us have a five-hour workday?

A growing number of start-ups are already experimenting with shorter work days, and it’s not all a feel-good PR effort: Shorter workdays tend to make people work more efficiently. The human brain can’t concentrate on a task for eight uninterrupted hours anyway, and history is full of famous scientists and writers who stuck to a strict daily schedule of 4 – 5 hours of focused work.

Wait — I thought we wanted a four-day workweek?

As always, the devil is in the details. Some companies are rolling out shorter workdays alongside fewer breaks and more worker surveillance in an effort to wring maximum output out of every minute. So that’s not great. And the tightly controlled implementation allows few opportunities for workers to form relationships or discuss shared problems, the building blocks of collective action.

The four-day workweek, meanwhile, is being tested on a larger scale in some European countries, and Rep. Mark Takano (D‑Calif.) has introduced legislation to shorten the standard workweek to 32 hours (making employees eligible for overtime pay sooner). But a longer weekend, for example, doesn’t do much for hourly workers or low-wage shift workers struggling to make ends meet.

As part of the larger project to make our working lives more humane, the question of shorter workdays or workweeks is a classic case of, Why not both?”

What would I do with all of my extra” time?

That one’s entirely up to you — which is exactly the point.

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