Why you should care
Because Fridays off!
Imagine having seven and a half weeks off every year. Imagine what you could do: take car trips, take naps, picnic with your kids, explore your neighborhood, learn to make éclairs, write that novel. That’s what happened — most likely minus the éclair-making — in New England in 1908, when a mill seeking to accommodate its Jewish workers on their Sabbath gave employees not only Sunday off but Saturday too. It was a spark: 18 years later, Henry Ford closed his factories two days a week, and subsequent union victories brought the two-day weekend to the U.S., and the world, for good.
So let’s do it again. As part of their platform, green parties in the U.K. and Australia have recently floated the idea of a three-day weekend, for everyone, all the time. Politicians in Italy are also weighing a similar scheme, hoping to create more jobs. After all, if a 32-hour week were normal, more employees would be necessary to fill in the rest of the hours.
A four-day workweek could also be good for the environment.…
This idea hasn’t really broken in the U.S. yet: There has been an uptick of schools switching to four-day weeks simply to save money, and the state of Utah attempted something similar for public workers. But it turns out that just working longer shifts for fewer days can actually be detrimental to your health. Some high-powered tech firms have implemented or discussed implementing four-day weeks, but that’s the kind of change that, while positive, offers more leisure time to those already privileged enough to enjoy it. One reason that green parties are the ones for pushing for systemic change, says Nicholas Ashford, director of the technology and law program at MIT, is that a four-day workweek could also be good for the environment. “A lot of the enthusiasm for a shorter workweek wasn’t driven by the idea of equity for the unemployed, it was driven by environmentalists,” Ashford says. He also points out that reduced commuting to the office doesn’t necessarily mean people use fewer resources: “What if they buy snowmobiles?”
This is the kind of change that seems to cut against modern trends curtailing idleness and encouraging everyone to maximize resources, all the time. Using the rhetoric of idle resources, businesses like Uber and Airbnb urge people to turn their leisure time into time operating as an “alternative” taxi driver or an under-the-radar hotelier rather than taking time to finish a book, sit with a coffee, see an old friend. “Work is much more than purchasing power,” Ashford says. “It’s how we identify as individuals. People’s self-esteem and their self-image is tied up with what they do.” But veering from the encouragement to work 24/7 could offer a cultural swerve away from that kind of self-definition, right around the time some futurists are predicting a wave of automation will put some of us out of work anyway. In 1908, it was impossible to imagine two out of every seven days for leisure; 109 years later, it could, just maybe, be time to shift those norms again.
Of course, adjustments would be necessary. Ashford points out that hourly wages would have to go up to ensure people could still make a living on a four-day workweek; otherwise the whole thing falls apart. Meanwhile, critics of a Swedish pilot program testing a six-hour workday tried to shutter it early over concerns about unsustainable costs, even though participating workers reported better productivity and improved health.
A three-day weekend is a much-needed reprieve, reminding everyone — including ourselves — that the goal is to have more time to kick back, not for an extra moment on Slack, not for being the Uber driver who gets there first. Write that novel, go to your kid’s play, take a nap. It’s the future, and I believe we were promised some goddamned downtime.