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How a four-day working week could benefit every woman

It’s been seen as the preserve of working mothers – but the four-day week should be an option for all, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

"In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. So, for the 21st century, let's lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.”

This is what Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, will say at a conference in Manchester today. O’Grady believes that it shouldn’t just be big companies and management that benefit from the advances of technology, but workers’ lives – and pay packets – should be made better, too.

Since leaving a traditional Monday-to-Friday role, the way I’ve seen the working week has been wildly transformed. I realise how much of our time is not our own and how that impacts us. Being in charge of my own time has radically improved my self-care, for example. Now, I find time to exercise, to go to the doctor’s, to lay low when I’m unwell and be able to catch up on work at my own pace. Now, weekdays don’t feel like five marathons to a weekend, when I overeat and over-drink and over-sleep. Now, I feel there is a rhythm and balance to my life. There’s no panic to find clean clothes at 6.30am or to have the best Saturday to make the six-hour round trip to a friend in the Midlands seem worth it. There’s no trail of destruction following me round the house until Saturday morning, when I have the time to put things away or do a white wash. Without the rigid structure of a traditional Monday to Friday, nine to five, I feel in control, not carried along the unstoppable wave of the working week, punctuated by an expensive, excessive two days.  

I’m pretty sure an extra day for those chores, freeing up more leisure time and giving you a longer break from the office, would radicalise and incentivise a workforce

Having a culture that promotes a four-day week therefore is potentially really exciting. Normally seen as a right only for working mums (who, in turn, are made to feel guilty about their so-called “special treatment” or lack of ambition, depending on who you ask), an extra day to do the things that life demands would make a huge difference to the general workforce. Having more time to do things like paying bills, visiting doctors, seeing family, going for a swim, cleaning, shopping, ironing shirts for the week of meetings ahead, or even pursue something creative or fulfilling, could go some way, especially among millennials, to compensating for a stagnant workforce and inability to gain financial security. And, while I know economists will tell me that the UK is falling down on productivity and a four-day week is a pipe dream, I’m pretty sure an extra day for those chores, freeing up more leisure time and giving you a longer break from the office, would radicalise and incentivise a workforce. After all, there’s no one more productive and efficient in an office than those lazy, unambitious part-time mothers. Contrary to popular belief, they are not the ones permanently on Twitter or taking 20 minutes to make a cup of tea.

Recently, I’ve met with lots of women in their thirties and forties, and they’ve all said the same thing: “What’s the point of working this hard?” Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe it’s a reaction to a broken system, where their hard work can’t buy them a house. Or maybe it’s a response to the demand for a different way of living. What is the point of working five days out of seven a week? Yes, money. Of course. This decision is a luxury for most people. But there’s also a shift in how we want our lives to look and feel. Even the most prominent #girlbosses advocate breaks and downtime.

Technology has the potential to make this happen (if we all stop wasting time on Instagram), but it has had a different effect. Just when we want to find a new ratio of living, when the capitalist clogs aren’t working out for us in quite the same way, tech has become a shackle to our jobs, even if we’re not in the office. Sky News reports that “employers are alleged to be making staff work unpredictable hours because of an ‘always on’ culture, with more than 1.4 million people working on seven days of the week and 3.3 million working more than 45 hours a week”.

The economics of a national four-day week will be rightly battled out. Brexit will knock us all for six and maybe it is a luxury we can’t afford now. But the conversation recognises an unfair workforce of insecure and underpaid labour, in part a response to the tech revolution, but also a widespread feeling that what we’re doing at the moment simply isn’t working. Clearly, it’s time we all made a change.


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