The Headwinds and History Propelling the Four-Day… | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Blog

The Headwinds and History Propelling the Four-Day Workweek Movement

Apr 30, 2024

This piece dives into the headwinds and history behind the four-day workweek movement. To read about the dynamics involved with implementing a four-day workweek model as a business, explore Bill and Courtney’s companion piece, The Four Day Workweek: What Businesses Should Be Thinking About.

Major changes in our society and culture can take a long time. This is especially true when it comes to major and/or new legislation that will have a wide impact on our society. Such is the case within our current debate about changing the workweek to four days per week. Before anyone cheers, panics or sketches plans for implementation, it’s worth reviewing the forces driving the current conversation and some background on how we arrived at our workweek’s current 40-hour/5-day structure.

Several converging factors are driving momentum for the four-day workweek. Firstly, CEOs, under increasing pressure from technological advancements and global megatrends such as climate change, are feeling the impetus to reinvent their businesses. This drive toward innovation is coupled with a COVID-19 reckoning that has highlighted the importance of hybrid work models and prioritizing employee well-being. Additionally, the advent of AI promises heightened productivity levels, making the idea of a shorter workweek more feasible. Notably, there is a strong correlation between AI proficiency and openness to the four-day workweek, with many businesses considering its implementation. Moreover, rising union activities, exemplified by the United Auto Workers' push for a 32-hour workweek for 40 hours of pay, have fueled the conversation. The sentiment is echoed by various trade unions and politicians, as seen in campaigns and pilot programs like those in the United Kingdom. 

This connection between productivity, the labor movement and the structure of the workweek has deep historical roots in the United States. The evolution from an unregulated workweek to the 40-hour/5-day workweek we know was marked by numerous milestones, including agitation for improved conditions in the 1800s, the introduction of an 8-hour workday bill in Congress in 1866 and the passing of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, later amended in 1940 to establish the modern workweek. Companies during these decades were harnessing industrialization to rapidly increase productivity, and a premise behind much of the period’s labor agitation was that if a company finds a way to save time without sacrificing output, some of that time should be given back to employees. While this lens lost steam in the decades that followed, it remains very relevant in today’s discussion. The current U.S. debate was kickstarted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who introduced a bill to set a standard of a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay. A similar bill was introduced in the House in 2021 and reintroduced this year as a companion bill to the Sanders legislation.

Although the path to national adoption is likely improbable in the immediate future, it remains plausible in the long term. Depending on political dynamics, we can anticipate increased deliberations and efforts to garner public support for Sanders’ legislation and the concepts underpinning it. Just as the Affordable Care Act underwent years of debate before eventual passage, the journey toward a shorter workweek may similarly require patience and perseverance. 

Overall, however, with influential stakeholders embracing the concept and successful trials being conducted worldwide, the discourse on the four-day workweek continues to evolve, reflecting a growing appetite for work-life balance, for organizational adaptability and for new ideas around how businesses can exist within the changing world. 

What can business leaders do today? 

In our companion piece to this one, we explore different approaches to the four-day workweek and what businesses should consider as they look into the model.

/ Apr 30, 2024

The Four-Day Workweek: What Businesses Should Be Thinking About

Previous Post