Unlike the length of a day or a year, the duration of a week is an entirely human construct. Its lineage can be traced back about 2,000 years, but across history and different cultures, there’s been little agreement on what shape it should be. There have been ten-day, eight-day, and four-day weeks, starting on Sunday, Friday, Tuesday, any day.
As for days off, the first mention of the ‘weekend’ is merely 139 years old, and the UK’s Saturday/Sunday version is a 20th century invention. For lots of people, the modern five-day, 40-hour workweek might feel like an unassailable institution, but it’s built on shallower foundations than many realise.
A recent survey found that fewer than six percent of UK workers actually work nine-to-five, with 42 percent already working ‘flexibly’. But almost every aspect of our lives, from when trains run to when sports are broadcast, is built around the “workweek” model. Why are we still hanging on to a concept that simply doesn’t match up to the realities of our working lives any more?
In 2019, we’ll finally abandon the idea of a “working week”, and begin to reimagine work and society to match our new reality.
The trends that drive this have been accumulating over years. Globalisation means that services or markets are always ‘on’; every hour a new time zone wakes up and another falls asleep. Smartphones are our constant companions.
Meanwhile, fewer people are observing a religious “day of rest”, and family structures are changing—with parents sharing work and domestic duties in different patterns. All these factors contribute and respond to disruptions in the ordering of our work and leisure time, creating a new generation of workers who are already demanding more flexible hours.
The impacts of emerging technologies have only accelerated this disruption. Platform working is on the rise and recent scandals around the treatment of Amazon workers reflect how fast the way we work is changing, and how unprepared we are to deal with the consequences. That’s before we even get to the much-heralded robots coming to take our jobs.
The repercussions of these trends will have a real effect on our lives, for better and for worse. On the upside, more flexible working hours could make it easier for people to pursue non-traditional careers, and rewarding creative vocations. On the downside, it could lead to people working more hours than ever at lower pay, or being “on call” 24/7.
Some are already living the darker vision. Shift workers, carers, and those who work in industries whose primetime is by definition the majority’s leisure or ‘after hours’ time (such as bar staff, cleaners, taxi drivers, tutors, etc) have always had to struggle with overcoming the challenges of being out of step with the rest of society’s schedule. But the people whose working lives don’t map onto the nine-to-five, and who are struggling with the consequences are no longer just a small segment of society. Arguably, it’s everybody.
If you’re in a white-collar job, it might be the mental health toll of 24/7 work emails, the loneliness of remote working, or ‘flexible work’ becoming ‘boundless work’. Time is a precious resource for this group, and a whole market of apps has sprung up in response to do laundry, deliver food, put up shelves, or bring a Prime Now toilet roll order. But someone has to do the dirty work, and sustaining these services are the low-waged warehouse workers, and the gig economy workers juggling multiple jobs on ‘poverty pay’.
This disruption has driven an increase in interest in some radical (if not exactly original) ideas about how we might construct a more positive system. What could these new patterns look like?
The TUC, which has a track record of historic successes in campaigning for work reform, called for a four-day week at its annual conference earlier this year. This was explicitly justified by the idea that the advantages resulting from productivity gains from new technologies ought to be shared across the breadth of working society, and not just benefit those at the top. A four-day week isn’t going to fix worker exploitation in one fell swoop, of course, but reviving the discussion about it can build into an opportunity for a thorough and comprehensive debate about what the balance of our working lives should be.
Simultaneously, the shift towards more flexible work and the spectre of impending automation have also amplified conversation surrounding Universal Basic Income (UBI) - an idea where citizens of a country receive a regular sum of money from the government. Influential figures such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson are advocating for UBI as an option to head off the adverse effects of increasing automation. Business magnates such as them cheerleading the idea might rightly make us suspicious of it, but several countries have also recently completed trials implementing UBI at various scales.
Both UBI and the four-day week call into question what our lives might look like if the ratio of work to life was rebalanced. With more time on our hands, what might we spend it doing?
Work has often been characterised as the wellspring of meaning and purpose in our lives, but there could be alternatives - there could be a rise in people engaging in more creative pursuits, or volunteering. At the national (or even international) level, the impact of these shifts would be significant - we could expect the burden on the NHS to be lower if we all found a better balance between work and leisure, for example, and this shift could be especially timely given the care needs of a growing ageing population. With work patterns in flux, infrastructure such as transport systems would need to be reassessed - who wouldn’t welcome the end of ‘rush hour’?
Intuitively, there ought to be concerns about the economic viability of such radical experiments. But some trials with a four-day week have in fact found it actually increases productivity, and so far there seems to be no evidence that UBI would incentivize idleness.
Of course, not every experiment has been successful, and there is plenty of disagreement over what the best implementations might look like. Some trials with the four-day week have been little more than enforced decreased hours at lower pay. Even with the trials that have been successful, responses have been cautious—the big question remains: is it all too good to be true?
Technology and a rapidly-changing global society are already transforming nine-to-five working culture as we know it. If this is to be a revolution, then who does it benefit? Without public debate, the risk is that at best it simply consolidates the privilege of those who already have the ‘right’ kind of flexibility, while increasing the burden on those who don't. It’s clear that we need to modernise our system of workers' rights and protections.
In 2019 it’ll be time to recognise that a fundamental shift is taking place in the pattern of our lives and our world. Let’s talk about what kind of shift we want that to be, and make sure it’s not one which just entrenches existing inequalities.
Georgia Ward Dyer is a Researcher and Curation Assistant in the Futures and Explorations Team.