Free university for students. Free shares in your company. And now plenty of free time, with one day less in the office or the factory every week. The shadow chancellor John McDonnell hasn’t quite gotten around to promising free Krispy Kreme doughnuts in every shopping mall, abolishing fees for Sky Sports, or handing out Uber vouchers for everyone. But heck, there are still at least three years to go until the next election. It may only be a matter of time.
McDonnell’s latest wheeze for buying more votes is a half-promise to reduce the.standard working week from five days to four. Apparently, with the rise of artificial intelligence, and the onwards march of robotics, we won’t need to spend so much time at work. The machines will do it all for us, and if the government doesn’t step in there won’t be enough jobs to go round and the wealth won’t be shared fairly. His solution? Cut out a day of work, and give everyone a three-day weekend. It is an idea that has already been embraced by the TUC, and is picking up increasing support on the left.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with people working less. Plenty of companies are already experimenting with it, and have found, in some cases at least, that it improves motivation and drives productivity. And of course with the rise of the gig economy, and the massive increase in the numbers of self-employed (who may soon overtake the public sector as a percentage of the workforce), many more of us are working a lot more flexibly. We can work ten, twenty, or seventy hours a week, as we choose: some of us may put in ten hours one week, and sixty the next. That is perfectly fine.
But a legally mandated four day week? There are two problems with that, and they are not exactly minor. It is completely unnecessary, and it will hurt the economy; potentially massively so.
In fact, despite all the fashionable doom-mongering, there is no evidence that robotics or AI will mean fewer jobs. Sure, we will work differently, but not less. Not convinced? Well, tech has been booming for two decades now, and what’s happened to employment? It has hit record highs, not just in this country but in every advanced economy. To take just once example, after ATM machines were introduced in the 1980s the number of jobs in banking went up, not down. As intelligent machines take over more and more routine tasks, it is almost certain that exactly the same thing will happen as has happened in every other industrial revolution: we will have more jobs and they will be better paid as well.
Next, it is surely up to individuals and companies to decide how much they want to work. We have already seen a big rise in flexi-working as dual career parents juggle different commitments, and as older workers rejoin the labour market. But once the government attempts to mandate hours, all that happens is that the people who want to work more are prevented from doing so. Since they are usually the most productive members of the workforce, everyone suffers. France mandated a 35-hour week two decades ago, and all it achieved was permanent mass unemployment. There is no reason to think it would be any different here.
A four day week for John McDonnell would be great. He would have less time to come up with half-baked ideas for wrecking the economy. For everyone else, however, it would be pointless and destructive.