In 1956, then–Vice President Richard Nixon declared that the four-day workweek was inevitable. He quickly retracted that statement, but now, at least in Europe, it seems he might have been right after all. Average working time is falling in Europe: we now work almost one hour less per week than we did about ten years ago.
Many have argued that a thirty-hour week is the future. Shorter working hours would be good for the environment, for productivity, for employee health, for society at large, or for all of it combined.
So, do the recent figures in Europe mean it’s time for proponents of the thirty-hour week to pop the champagne corks?
Not just yet. The problem lies in the “on average” part. The decrease in working time comes almost exclusively from the spread of part-time employment. For full-time employees nothing has changed — their working hours have remained the same.
The Thirty-Hour Week — on Average
Currently, one in five jobs in Europe are part-time. The phenomenon is most pronounced in the Netherlands, where over three in four working women and one in four working men hold a part-time job. So the thirty-hour workweek is a reality in this country — but again, only on average.
The problem is that the growth of part-time jobs across Europe risks reinforcing existing economic and gender inequalities rather than fighting them. Figures show that the “choice” of part-time work is rarely completely free, but rather determined by job availability and family obligations. Many take up part-time jobs because there’s no full-time work available, while for many others it’s the only way they can combine caring tasks with work.
Meanwhile, this kind of working-time reduction is paid for entirely by individual employees, with both their wages and pension suffering. Part-time jobs also offer poorer career prospects and are often insecure, meaning not only are the workers’ current earnings lower, but their future income is jeopardized as well. Finally, since it’s mostly women who are in part-time jobs, this sort of working-time reduction is unlikely to create a more level playing field between the sexes.
Working-time reduction defined by individual “choice” is thus not the way forward. Shorter hours are something everyone should be able to benefit from, so they need to be organized in a way that guarantees equal results for all workers.
There’s certainly evidence that working less is a popular idea with many employees. In Austria, for example, the “Freizeitsoption,” a labor agreement negotiated at the sectoral level but in a voluntary manner, gave employees in some sectors the option to choose more vacation instead of extra pay: time instead of cash. Even though the company and the individual manager needed to both agree within a very short time frame, about 8-10 percent of the eligible employees still chose time instead of money.
In addition to that initiative, there’s a wealth of experiments with working-time reduction that we can turn to for inspiration. The most recent and famous example is the Swedish experiment of introducing a six-hour day for retirement-home workers. There, the subsidized temporary reduction in working time proved beneficial for both the health of the employees and the quality of the services.
Other initiatives focus on preserving jobs. The Volkswagen 28.8-hour week is an example of a dramatic decrease in working hours that was implemented to avoid laying off about 30,000 employees. In that case, the working-time reduction was obligatory for all employees, but also temporary. It was mostly financed through pay cuts and a smart use of bonuses, so that the monthly wage of the employees remained stable.
In the 1990s, Finland experimented with a thirty-hour week that managed to maintain both stable wages for the employee and stable costs for the company. How? By simultaneously extending operating hours. A ten- or twelve-hour workday was split into six-hour shifts. Machinery was used more intensively, reducing its relative cost and creating opportunities to work less for the same pay. Many employees now working in continuous production would gladly sign up for such a compromise.
And finally, we have sector- or country-wide regulations, where full-time employees’ working time is gradually reduced. This can push workers to reconsider their decisions about time spent at the office, and consequently put men and women on a more equal footing.
Rather than “on average” cuts in hours, generated through an increase in part-time work, we should reduce working time for everybody. The examples above show that there’s no one best way of doing so, and these kinds of changes don’t always come without compromises. But they all share an approach based on parity and fairness in how the reduction was implemented and show how positive results can be achieved through an organized, collective approach.
More free time should be available to all: not as a necessity or an option that comes with severe drawbacks, but as a positive life change from which everybody can benefit.