Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Rise of leisure society: how could a four-day week work?

A four or three-day working week could become the norm for full-time workers over the coming decades, writes Scott Corfe

In his essay, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, the great economist John Maynard Keynes presented us with a compelling vision of the future – one in which we would increasingly become a leisure society in which hours worked dwindled as technological progress enabled us to achieve more in a shorter space of time. Freed from long hours in the office, shop or factory, people would be able to spend more time relaxing, enjoying hobbies and spending time with their families.

Since Keynes wrote this essay in 1930, the average hours worked by an employee in the United Kingdom have indeed fallen significantly, from 47 hours to 32 hours today. If government, businesses and other policymakers play their cards right, there is scope for the working week to fall even further, while keeping living standards high.

The rise of robots and artificial intelligence in what is being called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ could be a key driver of a growing leisure society. Through the automation of tasks, and higher levels of productivity, the fourth industrial revolution will enable us to produce more goods and services while at the same time working fewer hours than at present. Conceivably, a four or three-day working week could become the norm for full-time workers over the coming decades, with no loss to household incomes or living standards.

At present, United Kingdom employees work some of the longest hours in Europe – in part driven by relatively low levels of productivity in the economy which mean UK employees have to work more hours to produce the same amount as their counterparts in France and Germany. By embracing technological change and the associated productivity benefits, the UK will be better placed to offer an improved work-life balance for employees.

There is a strong role for policymakers to play in ensuring that technological change evolves in a way that improves work-life balance while maintaining living standards. Critically, the distribution of leisure time, employment and incomes will be crucial. One concern is that fourth industrial revolution may lead to too much free time for some workers, as robots and automation lead to mass redundancies and higher rates of unemployment. We could increasingly find ourselves in a world where many are unemployed or not working enough hours to make ends meet, while others are being overstretched. Companies might increasingly place workers on zero-hours contracts, using algorithms to determine precisely how many hours someone should work in a given week – creating huge uncertainty around leisure time and income.

Given this, the Social Market Foundation has argued that there is a key role for trade unions and employee panels to play in ensuring that leisure time and income gains from new technology are spread in an equitable way.

One key unknown with respect to the rise of a leisure society is the extent to which human greed has limits. Keynes wrote his essay as an intellectual that placed a high value on leisure time for reading and other cerebral pursuits, and a relatively low value on constant material accumulation. Consequently, he overestimated the extent to which leisure time would have fallen by now. If the greed of most of us – and our employers – really has no limits, and we keep desiring bigger houses, more clothes and the latest gadgets, then we will continue to work long hours. Pity the politician that tries to tell us that, perhaps, we should be happy with our lot.

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Scott Corfe is chief economist at the Social Market Foundation. He tweets at @ScottCorfe

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Photo: KUKA Roboter GmbH, licensed under Creative Commons

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