The Climate Case for the Four-Day Work Week

By Brian Kahn on at

Jacinda Ardern has won a lot of rightful praise for New Zealand’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The nation has stood as an outlier with cases that have stayed low, and the country is beginning to reopen in what it hopes is a safe way. So maybe we should also be paying attention to what their ideas are for a recovery plan.

Last week, Ardern suggested switching to a four-day work week. Yes, the reasons she listed were largely focused on stimulating the New Zealand economy, particularly its hard-hit tourism sector. But a four-day work week – like the one many of us will enjoy this week thanks to the bank holiday – would do more than juice the economy and make workers happy. It could also help protect the climate.

Less work is a dream that’s been kicking around for a while; history is ripe with examples of workers and even companies pushing for fewer working hours. That includes economist John Maynard Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour work week in 1930 and Kellogg’s shift to a 30-hour work week during the Great Depression. The US Senate even went so far as to pass a bill codifying a 30-hour week in 1933 (the House never took it up).

With a similar economic crisis gripping the world today and Ardern putting the idea of a four-day week front and centre as a possible recovery measure, it’s worth reconsidering just why it could be a good idea.

Giving people an extra day off doesn’t seem to have the negative impact on work life that you might expect. There’s ample proof that even under a four-day week, productivity doesn’t drop (in fact, it can go up). Really, what’s standing between us and doing less work is a fetishisation of putting in the time, rising inequality that keeps people struggling, and, as University of Iowa historian Benjamin Hunnicutt put it in a 2014 piece for Politico, “a failure of imagination.”

Ardern’s idea is pretty straightforward. Tourism accounts for 5.8 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP, and the sector has basically come to a standstill. With coronavirus cases extremely low and the pandemic seemingly under control, cutting the work week by a day would mean folks can spend time travelling and helping the sector pick back up.

But even leaving out the coronavirus recovery part, the four-day work week would also set the world on a pathway to a safer climate. A white paper published in 2006 made the case clearly: If the US adopted European work hours, American carbon emissions in 2000 would have been 7 per cent below its actual 1990 levels. That would have been enough for the US to meet the targets set forth in the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 climate treaty the country failed to ratify.

Working longer hours means heating and cooling offices, more electricity use, and more energy spent commuting. In places without public transit, that means more local air pollution as well. For instance, in the US, transportation accounts for the biggest chunk of carbon pollution. Prior to the pandemic, there was a relatively small portion of telecommuters in the US. Yet these 3.9 million people working from home reduced emissions as much as taking 600,000 cars off the road each year. The impact of more work-from-homers due to the pandemic is likely to have an even bigger impact.

The effects aren’t limited to work-related commutes and office energy use. A 2011 study found that longer hours worked are also associated with “energy-intensive consumptions and favour conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles.”

While the four-day work week could offer a way to reduce environmental harm, it’s not necessarily a slam dunk absent major government intervention. For one, there’s the state of the economy in the year of our Lord, 2020. There are huge issues around inequality, gig work, and, in countries like the US, private health care tied to employers and working a set number of hours.

David Rosnick, an economist at the US Center for Economic and Policy Research who authored the 2006 white paper, told Gizmodo, “there are serious problems with inequality once we impose effective policies toward hours reduction. Many of these low-end workers already scramble with unpredictable schedules and side-gigs to make up for short hours and even shorter incomes. At the higher end, there’s the question of employer-provided health coverage: Are employees going to have to cover an additional 20 per cent of those costs?”

Rosnick also raised concerns that some employers would just end up asking employees to cram more hours into fewer days, and asked what it would mean for those who don’t work Monday through Friday. Cutting down to a four-day work week without wage and benefits protections isn’t going to fly. For Ardern’s plan to be equitable, let alone implemented elsewhere, everyone has to be taken care of.

Many countries could also do a hell of a lot to improve access to low-carbon leisure, or else people could end up just burning through carbon in other ways, like cruising. In cities, that could mean opening more streets (lots of them) to pedestrians and bikes and providing outdoor dining that can allow people to social distance while enjoying downtime. And beyond city limits, it means building out affordable mass transit. None of this will be enough to completely stave off the climate crisis, but overlooking at as a solution would be a huge folly.

All of which is to say we need big structural changes to take place in order for working less to work. That may sound like a tall order, but it’s worth stepping back to remember what we’re fighting for in the first place.

“We’ve forgotten that the purpose of life is to be happy, and to pass that happiness on to future generations,” Hunnicutt wrote in Politico.

To have a chance at passing on the good life, we need to address the climate crisis. And the time to do it is now.

Featured image: Getty