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It’s Time to Shorten the Working Week

Faced with a deep economic and ecological crisis, we need to build a movement to cut working hours without reducing pay.

After many years when working time reductions have been off the political agenda, the shorter working week has finally emerged into the political mainstream. A recent survey found that Britons are the most enthusiastic in Europe about the proposal, with 71 per cent thinking it will make them happier. With work-related stress, depression, or anxiety accounting for 57 per cent of all sick days, and two-thirds of workers worried about machines taking away their job, the clock is ticking on the UK’s broken and outdated model of working time.

There is no natural law determining the amount of time we spend in work. ‘Typical’ working hours are, in fact, a matter of collective decision-making, and have changed throughout history. A century ago, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was founded to set labour standards that would prevent the exploitation of workers and advance social justice. The ILO Constitution included a convention to ‘limit the hours of work in industrial undertakings to eight in the day and forty-eight in the week’. Prior to this, working hours averaged nearly sixty hours a week. A combination of increased pay and productivity, strong collective bargaining, and labour market regulation meant that the average full-time week in the UK fell steadily to forty hours by 1979.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) ran the ‘Drive for 35’ campaign to reduce working time down from 39 hours a week. Incorporating successful tactics used by German union IG Metall, the CSEU won a 37-hour week after adopting a strategy of mass campaigning, followed by selective, indefinite strike action. 

However, unlike in past campaigns, the reduction in working time by the CSEU did not work its way through to the rest of the economy, and the trend for ever-shorter working weeks faltered from the 1980s onwards. Following labour market deregulation, reduced collective bargaining, and slower growth in pay for low income workers, the average full-time week fell by just 2.5 hours to an average of 37.5 hours by 2016. Recent New Economics Foundation (NEF) modelling has shown that if average hours had continued to fall at post-war levels after 1980, then the UK would be on target to reach a 30-hour working week by 2040. 

The twin challenges of automation and climate change will dominate political discussions in the coming years. It is time to move beyond seeing these simply as impending crises, and to start seeing them as opportunities to fundamentally rethink the world of work. That conversation should start with a bold solution: the four-day week.

Automation and Climate Change

In 1984, an indoor theme park named AutoWorld opened in Flint, Michigan. It was hoped that it might help to stem the impact of automation and deindustrialisation, which had torn their way through one of the USA’s most significant manufacturing heartlands. One exhibit inside the theme park — sponsored by General Motors — was a puppet of an autoworker singing a love song called ‘Me and My Buddy’ to the robot replacing him on the assembly line. Unsurprisingly, Autoworld was a dismal failure and closed its doors six months later. 

Flint continued its terminal decline, eventually becoming the poorest large city in the US, with almost half of its population currently living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, General Motors continues to be one of the world’s wealthiest corporations. It is a classic story of our age: owners and shareholders absorbed the gains of new technologies, while workers suffered falling wages and widespread poverty. Despite being a solidly Democratic state since 1992, in 2016 Michigan turned decades of anger into political action by voting for Donald Trump.

The UK has its own painful history of deindustrialisation and automation under neoliberalism, with the devastation of industrial and mining towns in Wales, Scotland, and the North of England still felt many years after Margaret Thatcher left office. It is predicted that up to 30 per cent of existing UK jobs could be impacted by automation by the early 2030s. One recent report by think tank Future Advocacy found that the highest levels of automation are likely to take place in Britain’s former industrial heartlands. With the country already the most regionally unequal in Europe, the impact of this could be disastrous.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Political action could ensure that new forms of automation don’t just benefit an ever-smaller elite. It is time to revisit perhaps the earliest demand of the labour movement: an economy allowing us to work to live, rather than living to work.  Reducing the working week has the potential to address the structural inequality at the centre of our economy: the growing gap between those who hold wealth and those who earn incomes. A reduction in hours without a reduction in pay results in a higher hourly wage and a lift for the share of income going to workers instead of to profits. 

Unions are already campaigning on the battleground of automation — and winning. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) have agreed with Royal Mail to shorten the working week from 39 to 35 hours for 134,000 postal workers. This concession was won in direct response to the impact of automation. They argue that their members should benefit from the mechanisation of the parcel packaging process in the form of shorter hours. 

Politicising automation is a far better approach than rejecting it wholesale. A shorter working week can be part of an ambitious plan to reshape the world of work, redistributing work across generational and gender lines by providing opportunities for more women to enter traditionally male jobs like manufacturing and engineering, or providing an opportunity for a gradual retirement that allows people more time outside of work to care for loved ones. If progressives can lead this conversation in the coming years, we can build a campaign that provides answers to many of our social problems. 

Automation is not the only major challenge we face. We urgently need to move towards a zero-carbon economy to avert environmental breakdown. The end of the fossil fuel age is already underway, and change is coming on a shorter timescale than industry, government, and communities are ready for.  A well-planned transition could see all workers shorten their working time without reducing their material quality of life. 

The energy of the Green New Deal and Sunrise Movements in the US has reinvigorated debate in the UK. A Green New Deal in this country could provide a new generation of green jobs across the country. And we have the chance now to talk about not just the quantity, but also the quality of those jobs. Reducing working hours can be part of a new, sustainable world of work. A 2012 report by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst examined the relationship between working hours and carbon emissions in twenty-nine OECD countries. It found that ‘countries with shorter work hours tend to have lower ecological footprints, carbon footprints, and carbon dioxide emissions’, and argued that a shorter working week should be a key component of climate change policy discussions. 

A move towards an economy which provides us with the time through which we can live fulfilling lives could change the behaviour of households away from energy-intensive behaviours and towards a more enriching use of leisure time. Even small changes — like more people taking the time to prepare food at home — could have huge knock-on effects, reducing the energy-intensive process of producing ready meals.

A move away from a fast-paced and environmentally destructive culture could also improve our well-being, opening up the space needed to participate in democratic processes and build strong social relationships through community activities. It is important not to view time purely as something our economy ‘generates’, but as a resource which contributes to everything we do. This is especially crucial to childcare, domestic labour, and sustaining community and democratic life.


A raft of major institutions are lining up behind the shorter working week. The TUC have said that the aim of the labour movement should be to achieve a four-day week in this century. In addition to CWU and CSEU, Unite the union have suggested that they will campaign for working time reduction, and have welcomed the Labour Party review led by Lord Robert Skidelsky into how policy might support these efforts. The Green Party promised a four-day week in their general election manifesto, while the SNP made the debate a central part of its annual conference.

At the New Economics Foundation, we have long argued that a reduction of working time with protected incomes offers a way of tackling both individual and societal symptoms of overwork and underpay, providing people with more time to recuperate, participate in democratic process, and fulfil caring responsibilities. We are developing proposals based around four principles for managing the transition towards a shorter working week: collective action and negotiation; responsivity to economic and industrial change; institutionalisation through rights; and aligned wider reform.  

Trade unions and businesses must be at the heart of the transition, negotiating and collectively agreeing reductions to working hours at the level of workplaces and in some instances sectors. We should be exploring a place-based approach, working to improve work/life balance, and tackle low pay and insecurity over hours in a defined city, town, or borough. The London Plus think tank’s ambition (working with the London Mayor’s office) to explore how to make London a four-day-week-city is an exciting development. At NEF, we are also working with the CSEU to build the evidence base for how manufacturing workers and the sector more broadly could benefit.

Historically, the process of working time reduction was done haphazardly. Today, there is an opportunity to ensure improved benefits cascade across the economy. A reduction of working hours should be implemented gradually and managed effectively. For some sectors facing medium-term challenges, such as high-carbon industry in a decarbonising UK, the opportunity presented by the shorter working week may add a particular urgency. The campaign must involve policy change: ensuring that the principle of working-time reduction is baked into the rules of the economy and that gains are institutionalised and shared. We must make sure our existing rights are improved and enforced — including those dealing with insecurity of hours, unpaid overtime, and flexibility.

A shorter working week must be part of a series of broader reforms. It will be necessary to tackle a range of issues in tandem, including low pay, inequalities, employers’ incentives, and prevailing assumptions about what is ‘normal’ and possible. Reducing the working week is not a silver bullet solution to work and pay issues, and cannot be seen in isolation — in particular from the reversal of policies that have curbed the influence of unions.

Achieving this change will require a campaign — which is why we at NEF are delighted to be able to partner with Tribune on a series of articles and events in the coming months that will make the case for a shorter working week. And we are not alone. There is exciting momentum building in this space with support, new initiatives, and announcements coming from the TUC, Autonomy think tank, Wellcome Trust, local and national level policy-makers, and a growing list of businesses.

The shorter working week carries with it the promise of a society that turns productivity gains into time outside of work, and in doing so helps to provide solutions to deep crises of stagnating wages, a welfare state on its knees, and a crumbling planet. It would allow each individual to lead more fulfilled lives — spending time with their friends and family, caring for their children and elderly relatives, taking up new interests, and losing themselves in the people and things they love — while helping us, collectively, to address our most pressing social challenges. But it won’t come along by itself, we need to build the movement that can make it happen.

You can subscribe to the New Economics Foundation’s shorter working week newsletter here.

About the Author

Alice Martin is Head of Work and Pay at the New Economics Foundation.

Aidan Harper is a researcher at New Economics Foundation.

Margaret Welsh is a communications officer at New Economics Foundation.