Is it time for a four-day week?

Shorter working week could be good for us all - would it work?

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Caroline Lucas

The four-day week is the kind of suggestion that most of us can get behind. A study by reed.co.uk found that the ideal job in the UK pays £61,000, allows us to come into the office in jeans, and only requires a four-day week.

We might assume that this is a daft pipe dream, but the four-day week has been attracting increasing attention in recent months. Proponents say it could increase productivity, improve our health, and boost our satisfaction with life, so can we expect it to happen?

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The Green Party is firmly behind it, and proposes moving from a limit of 48 hours a week to 35 hours. Leader Caroline Lucas stresses that people don't work as productively when they are tired, so by reducing the working week, we can ensure people are more productive when they are actually at their desk.

Productivity is a major issue. According to Expert Market, the UK has fallen down the rankings for productivity, and is now in 17th place worldwide - well behind many of its European neighbours - including France, Germany and Ireland. The report highlighted that countries with shorter-than-average working weeks tended to be more productive.

Lucas also highlights the benefits to individuals, who are less like to suffer from stress, ill health and mental health problems if they are less overworked.

Families would get a boost from the move too. The need for less childcare could boost gender equality. And if parents were able to stagger their working days, then it could dramatically reduce their childcare bills, and make work pay for all parents.

The New Economics Foundation think tank has also explored the idea of a shorter working week - although it looked at just 21 hours. It suggested that it would reduce the impact we have on the environment, and by spreading the work around, it would mean also lower unemployment.

Could it happen?

It's not impossible to imagine. After-all, during the Industrial Revolution, the six-day week was the norm. The extra half day off on Saturday came about towards the end of the 19th century, and the five-day working week became the norm in the 1920s and 30s.

In some industries a four-day week is the norm now: according to Health Education England, the average GP only works for four days a week. Southern Rail drivers are on a core contract of four days a week - although most of them opt to work a fifth, and schools across the country are considering a move to four days in an effort to cut costs.

However, there are some issues that make things less than straightforward. The impact on individuals would depend on how the new working week was paid. If we were paid the same for fewer hours, then there would be no financial cost to workers, but employers would suddenly get a whole lot less for their money - which could be terrible for business.

If employers paid us just for the four days, meanwhile, it would cause huge budget problems for us all. Over-stretched workers on any income would struggle with a dramatic drop in take-home pay.

Of course, this debate ignores the fact that a move to a four-day week may not be something we have any choice over. Eventually, as robots take over more and more of the work, there will be less employment left to go around for the humans. Recently the founder of Chinese retail giant Alibaba Jack Ma predicted the four-hour day and four-day week within the next 30 years.

If he's right, we can either plan for this, and find a functioning model for the four-day week, or cling onto existing patterns and watch millions put out of work altogether.

But what do you think? Does the idea of a four-day week appeal to you? Let us know in the comments.

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