The media have experienced a recurring tide of reports about the four-day working week. The topic plays on the right strings – most people are employees and work five days a week. Then, when they hear that we could cut it by one day, it sounds like heavenly music to their ears on Friday morning.
Advocates of this idea like to tout examples of businesses where such a move has resulted in happier employees, higher labor productivity and more profitable business. And on that basis, they want to introduce a compulsory, across-the-board workweek throughout the economy.
This is a classic example of the fallacy of composition. The fact that something applies to a part of the whole does not automatically apply to the whole. The aforementioned successful experiments are generally in creative industries, where output depends not so much on quantity (hours worked) but rather on creativity and quality. These are various marketing, legal, financial or IT businesses.
But is something similar possible for truck drivers, factory operators, excavators, cooks, or waitresses? It is hard to imagine that a waitress can serve as many people in 4 days as she can in 5 days. It’s reminiscent of the good old joke about how Chuck Norris can run a 12-minute run in 6 minutes.
Some people argue that an extra day of rest will improve employee satisfaction and consequently productivity. That may be true to some extent, but is it really so much that it offsets a 20% reduction in hours worked? This is an empirical question that is tested every day by entrepreneurs and managers.
Their job description is to seek optimal working conditions and work benefits that will increase labor productivity at a higher rate than their costs. If the enthusiastic activists are right, this is a missed profit opportunity that entrepreneurs have under their noses but are unable or unwilling to exploit.
Here, rather than the claims of activists from the table, I trust entrepreneurs who go with their skin in the market and are trained to look for profitable opportunities.
In fact, the less naive activists know that a four-day work week will not increase productivity in most occupations, and therefore they know they need politicians. They, unlike entrepreneurs, can externalize the costs of their ideas to the rest of society.
So, for example, in Spain, they will soon start testing a day off in selected companies, and the state will sprinkle 50 million euros on this experiment.
The idea that we can apply such a model across the board to all employees is analogous to the idea that we can pull ourselves out of the water. The state only has the money that we citizens pay it from our labor. And if we work less, the state will have fewer resources.
And if we want it to reimburse us for time off afterwards, it will increase public spending. As the saying goes: “Hmm that doesn’t work for me…”. So, a four-day working week can only work if some St Nicholas or Santa Claus pays for it.
Last year, Slovakia tried a demo version of state paid time off. You may know it as kurzarbeit. Last year, on average, the number of hours worked decreased by around 10%. And the state financed a significant part of this shortfall. It cost almost EUR 2 billion. We would need at least twice as many resources for a four-day working week. Annually.
The state in Slovakia (read taxpayers) cannot afford that. No country in the world can afford it. A four-day working week funded by the state is a fairy tale for those who believe in Santa Claus.