A key lesson of the “Great Resignation” is becoming increasingly clear: It’s time to shave a day off the workweek.
American workers are quitting in record numbers — 4.3 million in August, and another 4.4 million in September. Managers across industries are having trouble hiring, even as they raise wages and offer incentives.
But a new survey offers support for a not-so-radical but still uncommon solution: The four-day workweek.
Researchers for financial firm Jefferies asked young Americans (ages 22 to 35) who had quit their jobs recently what their former bosses could have done to persuade them to stay. Thirty-two percent said they would have stayed if they’d been offered a four-day work week. That was the second most-common answer, right behind the 43% who would have stayed for more money.
The study also found 80% of respondents support a four-day workweek. As for the remaining 20%: Only 3% said they were against a shorter week, and 17% were “neutral.”
Among workers with Bachelor’s degrees, “feeling burned out” was the No. 1 reason they quit.
The idea of a four-day week is hardly new, but the pandemic and the overwork that came with it have reinvigorated proponents.
Over the summer, Congressman Mark Takano of California introduced legislation that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — which codified the 40-hour model we now live with — to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours. Takano cited the pandemic-driven upheaval of workplace norms in an op-ed last month, drawing comparisons to the cataclysmic socioeconomic shifts of the 1930s.
“Globally and nationally, I think we’re at a similar place now,” Takano said. “Norms are being upended and questioned. People don’t want to return to old ways.”
It won’t happen overnight, he said. But it may come faster than people expect.
The 40-hour workweek was a hard-won fight by labor activists in the early 20th century. And it’s easy to see parallels to the current labor market, when workers are more empowered and unionization efforts are growing.
There have been plenty of experiments to support the idea. One oft-cited study in Iceland, in which workers reduced their hours without reducing pay, was hailed as an overwhelming success. Researchers found that worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, such as perceived stress and burnout.
When Microsoft tried a shorter workweek in Japan in 2019, it found productivity went up by almost 40%.
Elephant Ventures, a software and data engineering company started testing a four-day workweek in August 2020 to help prevent employee burnout during the pandemic. Notably, Elephant Ventures compressed its workweek to four 10-hour days, but the three-day weekend was so well received, the company is making the change permanent.
Why is it taking so long?
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that working hours would wind down over time, and that by around 2030, we’d all be working 15 hours a week. Clock in on Monday and Tuesday, then settle in for a five-day weekend. Instead, working hours have only increased, especially among salaried employees.
So what gives?
Experts have offered a range of explanations — big corporations are reluctant to change, especially if the change impacts the bottom line. It’s hard to imagine managers rushing to agree to pay workers the same amount of money for less work, even if productivity holds steady.
“I don’t see how the four-day week is going anywhere because it doesn’t help most employers,” said Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School. Although it makes sense in areas such as nursing, where it’s important to have the same person giving care longer each day, he says, there’s little or no benefit for traditional 9-5 offices to try to accommodate 10-hour shifts.
There are cultural underpinnings as well, as economist Ben Hunnicutt has argued. Before the early 20th century, “work and wealth had a destination — that was a richer, fuller human life,” Hunnicutt told the Atlantic in June. But eventually, work for its own sake took over, becoming a part of people’s identities like never before.
And, of course, there’s simple inertia. It’s difficult for workers to imagine a schedule different from the one they’ve grown up with.
— CNN Business’ Kathryn Vasel contributed to this article.