When in September 2018, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), called for a four-day week as a 21st century trade union ambition, we didn’t know how quickly the idea would take off.
But it seems that this is an idea whose time may have come. Just a few weeks ago, the UK shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, announced that the Labour Party had commissioned an enquiry into shorter working time. And we’ve seen a wave of interest from employers too—including those who have already moved to a shorter working week, and those, such as the Wellcome Trust, which are considering it.
So why are trade unions arguing for this—and why is it getting traction? On the one hand, it has to do with the increasing potential of technology and the concerns that accompany it. Until now, the numbers in newspaper headlines have been about potential job losses, with one finding by Osborne and Frey, which said 47 per cent of US jobs could be at risk from automation, taking centre stage. But people have started to realise that this conversation is about the potential for higher productivity. And if productivity does go up—the UK is currently experiencing a profound productivity slump—there are choices about how the benefits of that productivity are shared.