Most people were scandalised by John McDonnell’s proposal to promote a four-day working week. But before we get incensed about giving people more leisure during their working life, we need to ask another question. If it really is so vital to the economy that people spend more time at work, then why does the government spend £41 billion every year (a third of the cost of the NHS) providing tax relief on pension contributions? This merely encourages older and more experienced employees to leave the workforce several years earlier than necessary. Remember, five years needlessly spent in retirement is 20 years that could have been spent enjoying a working life of three-day weekends.
We don’t only have a problem with inequality of wealth — we have a problem with inequality of leisure. Britain’s leisure gains have mostly accrued to the young and the old. To the young in the form of ludicrously protracted time spent in higher education; to the old in the form of premature retirement. Relatively modest public-sector workers are given pensions worth millions in their sixties. Meanwhile, a middle-aged couple with children have no choice but to work 80 hours a week between them just to maintain a household. They might like to move into the larger house next door, but there’s probably a pensioner living in it.
Trust me, we need older people in the workforce. In my experience, it is only the over-fifties who really know what they’re doing. And this isn’t the 1930s. Fewer jobs are physically gruelling and life expectancy is higher. Wondrous and under-used technologies such as video-conferencing allow people to do much useful work from home. Both my father and father-in-law worked happily beyond their mid-seventies — far healthier than doing nothing at all. True, they didn’t work five days a week at 75 — but that’s exactly my point: it is the length and rigidity of the working week which forces people to stop working when they do: if there were more three-and four-day jobs, people could work longer. The money saved on pensions could then be spent decently providing for people unable to work.
With a four-day week, better use of travel-reducing technology, and more flexible working hours, we could help solve the pensions crisis, the transport crisis, the housing crisis and the social care crisis. It would also give people the time to retrain in middle age.
A four-day week of nine-hour days is one option. Yet there is much evidence to suggest shorter hours need not reduce productivity — often it’s the reverse. And recent innovations make it likely that our leisure pursuits might turn into something valuable. Significantly, the worldwide web itself was invented by someone on a four-day week: the late Mike Sendall, Tim Berners-Lee’s boss at CERN, gave Tim 20 per cent of his time to pursue his ‘vague but interesting’ hobby.
I think most people would prefer to work this way. In which case, economists ask, why does it not happen naturally? Because it is a co–ordination problem. Like monogamy, driving on the left or bitcoin, it is an idea which works only when a significant number of other people adopt it. Until a certain threshold is reached, there is little gain to adopting the behaviour unilaterally. Currently, few can ask for flexible hours at a job interview without looking lazy. That would change.
If McDonnell can introduce a shorter working week, he will be in interesting company. The six-day week was first promoted by God, and the five-day week by Henry Ford. I’m not sure what God’s motive was, but Ford’s was ingenious. He realised that with a two-day weekend, it would be more worthwhile to buy a car.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.