Calls for a four-day working week “ignore the reality” of life for many low-earners who need more hours, says a leading UK think tank.
A report by the Resolution Foundation published on Tuesday delves into how we spend our days, and how working life and pay has changed over the past few decades for men and women.
The report, entitled ‘The time of your life: Time use in London and the UK over the past 40 years,’ highlights a growing “working time inequality.” It says a gap in paid hours has widened between better-off and less well-off households, and the gender gap persists when it comes to unpaid labour.
Britain’s labour market has seen significant transformation in recent decades. men in low-income households have seen average working hours drop by more than three hours a day since the 1970s, according to the research. By contrast women in better-off households have seen the largest increase in average paid working hours over the past half-century.
It means the gap has grown in average hours between the top and bottom 25% of households by income. Lower-income households worked an average of 40 minutes less per week than higher-earning ones in 1974, but four hours and 20 minutes less per week in 2014-15, the most recent data available.
“As many households rethink their time use in light of the lockdown, it’s important to remember that while some people want to work fewer hours, others want or need to work more,” said Resolution Foundation economist George Bangham.
Why there is a push for a four-day working week
Some governments and companies across the world have been mulling over calls to make four-day working weeks more common. Multiple studies have claimed such working practices can significantly boost productivity.
Proposals for four-day working weeks do not necessarily mean people get paid less or even work fewer hours, but call into question conventional ideas around nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working.
Researchers at Ohio University have highlighted how a 40-hour working week “is not based on the ideal total hours humans can work productively.” They noted that in Sweden people work considerably fewer hours than their counterparts in countries such as the US and UK.
The average worker clocks only about six hours a day, compared to the average minimum of eight hours a day. Ohio University said that the switch-up in hours resulted in a “marked reduction in absenteeism, [and improved] worker health in addition to improved productivity.”
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data indicates German workers have the shortest working hours of any OECD country. However, it also has one of the highest productivity levels, with employees 27% more productive than UK staff that work more hours per year.
Labour has shown interest in a four-day week in recent years, with the party commissioning a review under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Four-day week calls ‘too rich-male centric’
However, the Resolution Foundation’s research questions the amount of attention dedicated to calls a four-day week when under-employment also remains a significant issue.
The study points out surveys show low-income households are far more likely to want more hours than high-income families, with under-employment a problem already before the coronavirus struck. It says debate over how to shorten average hours to boost leisure time are “too rich-male centric.”
“While calls for a four-day week may sound attractive, and chime with what many say they would like in an ideal world, they often ignore the reality of those in lower-income households for whom more, not fewer, hours are the top priority,” said Bangham.
Gender divide in unpaid labour narrows
The report shows women as a whole do more than five extra hours a week of paid work compared to the 1970s, whereas men do more than eight hours a week less than in the past.
But male time spent on unpaid labour, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, has increased by an average of five hours a week since the 1970s. By contrast women do nearly three hours less of unpaid labour than in the past.
These trends mean that men and women’s total time spent on paid and unpaid work combined has become more equal, according to the foundation.
But women still work fewer average paid hours and male unpaid labour still lags significantly behind women’s. The average man does 16 hours of such unpaid labour, compared to 29 hours a week for women.