Oxford University is home to a department engaged in a unique – and slightly odd – field of study: time-use studies. Every now and then, the Centre for Time Use Research gets vast surveys that gauge how, exactly, respondents now spend their time on a given day. These surveys, which have been taking place from time to time over fifty years, offer an insight into how we actually live.
Pierre Walthery, a research fellow, says: “About a third of people do some paid work at the weekend – 34 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women. It can be anything: a nurse on a weekend shift or people like me answering emails and working on my lecture for Monday on a Saturday… five-day, nine-to-five patterns are not particularly normal.”
Time – or, more bluntly, the weekend – is the next front line of fairness. To some, the idea of a four-day week is a dream within reach. It will boost productivity, tackle the gender pay gap, end the mental health crisis, allow us to see our children and take up more hobbies. We can make the most of automation: the machines do more, we can work less.
The Wellcome Trust, the scientific research charity, announced that it is looking at moving to a four-day week. In the UK, Labour has asked Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian, to examine the case for changes to the five-day week.
But millions of people now spend more time at work not less. The headlines might tease a four-day week but a third of us no longer even have a weekend. The five-day week is a 20th-century relic, created in the Ford factories of America, adopted to varying degrees in much of the world. But fewer of us work on factory lines; we no longer need every machine in every workplace manned at the same time. So the weekend is being eroded. At a ThinkIn in the Tortoise newsroom earlier this week, the discussion of a four-day week quickly became one about inequality in the workplace. Are we going to see patterns of pay echoed in time at work? Is a shorter working week for most people going to force them into a second job? Is the weekend – those who have it, those who don’t – the new divide?
Walthery describes research from a forthcoming book that shows how weekend working declined from the 1960s to the 1980s, then has been growing steadily until it plateaued in the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of hours people work at weekends, if they are working, is increasing.
There is increasing inequality in who is working weekends. Work by CTUR shows that agricultural workers work all hours – as they always have (cows have yet to unionise and demand a break for the Sabbath).
More recent increases in weekend work have come in distribution (Amazon deliveries), hotels and restaurants (servicing our leisure time) and “other services” (hairdressers, carers). Meanwhile, bankers and those in finance are least likely to work weekends.
A 2017 report from the Office for National Statistics for the UK describes that pattern more starkly: “Those from high-income households were more likely to be engaged in leisure activities on the weekends than those from low-income households, who were more likely to be working.”
According to the 2017 ONS data, 5.34 million people work Saturdays and 3.23 million work Sundays every week. Fewer, 2.35 million, work a four-day week – though that has increased significantly from 2.1 million in 2012. The biggest change in the past decade is the advent of the gig economy and those working the least secure patterns on zero-hours contracts.
The statistics however struggle to pin down what paid work is: a Saturday shift is obvious, but the micro intrusions of email and social media increasingly drag some workers into work around the clock.
In her book The Weekend Effect Canadian journalist Katrina Onstad makes the case that email and remote working has meant that the middle classes are starting to experience the intrusions of work in the way working classes long have.
“I’d argue that our new digital reality is a great class equaliser,” she writes. “The lack of control over time is something shift-workers, whose schedules change week to week and day to day, have always contended with.”
Aidan Harper works at the New Economics Foundation and speaks on behalf of the 4 Day Week Campaign. He admits that the headline goal is somewhat optimistic when the starting point is not a universal five-day week, but he insists it’s a worthy goal for everyone. “The four-day week is the horizon. We must aim for that,” he says.
Would the test of the four-day week not be whether Amazon delivery drivers and those other weekend shift workers could get a reduction in hours for the same wage?
“Amazon is hammering workers and dodging taxes,” says Harper. “Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world. Where have the gains from productivity gone? It’s been sucked up into the elite. Gains in productivity should be shared more fairly with workers in the form of better work-life balance.”
That might sound wildly optimistic, but in fact in one fairly quiet but profound case it’s already happening in the UK. The Royal Mail has committed to reducing the working week from 39 hours to 35 for 120,000 postal workers for the same pay. This is in anticipation of the impact of more automated technologies into its parcel process.
Others argue that we are now so conditioned to work that four-day weeks would simply prompt people to get a second job.
“Status is so closely associated with work and identity. It is really difficult for people to turn off even for two days a week – because who are you in those two days? People are locked up in their work selves. This serves the market really well,” says Onstad.
“There’s almost an anxiety about not being productive. Productivity has a lot of social capital. Time off is like an existential threat.”
It’s a glimmer of hope at a time when we’re working longer and harder into our leisure time, we’re less in control of our working lives – be it through email intrusion or zero-hours contracts – and when there is no longer even a consensus on what “work” actually is.
“Millennials have been told their whole lives they are lucky to have a job, that they have to work for free, do internships. You’re constantly building your CV all your life in an ugly way. Your CV is you,” says Harper. “Every sport you do, book you read, is part of the commoditised self. LinkedIn is a major example of this. Total commodification of the self. That’s ugly.”
Employers are also playing with the boundaries of work and leisure. The tech giants in Silicon Valley, New York and London disguise work as play by introducing table football, sweet shops, free beer on Thursdays and running clubs (disclosure: Tortoise has a running club – the Hares, obviously).
Professor Jonathan Gershuny, director of the Centre for Time Use Research, describes a world where it’s increasingly hard to distinguish between what is work and what is leisure. Just back from a safari in East Africa when we meet, he points out that he also wrote “probably the best paper of the decade” while relaxing in a luxury tent. Was he working or playing?
“Once upon a time we knew what was work: it was something men did and it involved strenuous exertion. Up to the 19th century that was all you needed to worry about,” he says. “Most of our jobs nowadays don’t correspond to anything that would have been considered as work then. Sure, my life is not like an Amazon delivery driver. There are still jobs that are hugely demanding in terms of attention and possibly physical effort. But to establish what work time is, is terribly, terribly difficult.”
Gershuny argues that there are different ways to think about work and its place in our lives. He points to the seminal study of working lives, conducted in 1930 by the Austrian-British social psychologist, Marie Jahoda. Marienthal: the Sociography of an Unemployed Community studied the effect of the closure of factories in a small town near Vienna.
“What she found there was that there are non-financial, non-fiduciary reasons for work: they are routine, company, exercise, sense of purpose. There are pathological consequences of the loss of time structure. There’s something about collective endeavour,” Gershuny says.
At the same time that Jahoda was researching in Austria, the British economist John Maynard Keynes was noting that, at the rate of decline of working hours witnessed at the time, his grandchildren would work a 15-hour week. Less well cited are the hopes and fears he had about the impacts of that change. The liberation of leisure time would give people space to appreciate the “art of life itself”, he suggested. Or, he adds to cover all the bases, it could also lead to a “generalised nervous breakdown” as people struggled to fill their time and find meaning, as aristocrats had done for generations before.
Where does Gershuny think we will be in 20 years’ time? He too expresses concerns. “I have an awful feeling that time structures and these temporal regularities are getting less and less coercive and that this will actually make problems,” he says.
“There are things that people need. You need routines – when to get up, go to bed and exercise. Routines associate you with other people, and as work times become more diffuse and the physical location of the work sometimes disappears altogether with hot-desking, you lose those things that used to be really quite essential functions.”
A world of four-day weeks where we all work a different four days would transform our worlds.
A sense of “collective endeavour” is already weakening. Just as Netflix has disrupted our shared viewing habits and the internet has disrupted our shared news habits, our collective rhythms are fragmenting and weakening: that Friday feeling, Saturday night on the town (or in watching telly) and Sunday night blues – they all kick in at random times, depending on your place in the labour market.
We risk becoming a society out of sync, with time inequality creating another divide in an already unequal world. We are used to a conversation about inequality. But days of the week are a new class divide. Well-paid service-sector jobs are more likely to allow time off and flexible working. Poorly paid ones are more likely to demand a rigid work week. The professional classes might be dreaming of a four-day week, but vast swathes of the country only want a weekend.