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Sensemaker: Four days a week

Friday 9 July 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Holiday bookings surged after the UK said fully vaccinated travelers returning from amber-listed countries would not have to quarantine.
  • Japan banned fans from the Tokyo Olympics because of Covid infections running at a seven-day rolling average of 1,754 while Wembley prepared to host 60,000 fans at Sunday’s Euros final, with a UK rolling average of 27,776.
  • In a tweet, Gary Lineker implored English fans not to boo the Italian national anthem.

Four days a week

We’d be chilling now. If we were anything like Iceland we’d be spending Friday sharing the chores, hanging with the kids or maybe fashioning a dovetail joint from a nice piece of aspen in the shed at the bottom of the garden. Iceland’s enormously successful trial of a four-day working week is the slow-burn story of the month so far. 

It was conducted before Covid, on a small sample in a small country that in many ways is unrepresentative of the rest of the world. But it has resonated, partly because of Covid and Zoom fatigue but also because of long-term developments like a widening gap between productivity and real wages. We’re doing more but not earning more, so why not claw back some of our time?

US productivity growth and hourly compensation growth, 1948-2019

The findings are perhaps unsurprising. Workers who switched from a 40-hour to a 35-hour or 36-hour working week with no loss of pay reported less stress and burnout, better health and a better work-life balance while their employers reported the same or better productivity and service provision in most workplaces (which included the Reykjavik mayor’s office, the Icelandic tax ministry and a police station in Iceland’s wild Westfjords).

The upshot is more remarkable. The study involved 1 per cent of Iceland’s workforce, but two years on 86 per cent are on shorter hours or have secured a right to them. The new week is “a gift from the heavens,” one trial participant said. It shows “we are not just machines that just work,” said another. It’s the future, said a third. “There is no going back.”

The supporting evidence is growing. Microsoft reported a 40 per cent increase in productivity that more than made up for the 20 per cent fewer hours worked in a four-day week pilot project in Japan last year. Target Publishing, a UK firm, had to cut pay and hours by 20 per cent because of Covid last year but was able to reinstate full pay and keep the four-day week when business picked back up. 

Unilever is running a year-long four-day week trial in New Zealand. Morrisons has said it’s moving to a four-day week at its Bradford HQ this summer. Spain’s prime minister has agreed to a proposal by the left-wing party Más País for a government-backed trial, and Andrew Yang, the former US presidential candidate and entrepreneur, has said the first big company to offer a four-day week in the States will be rewarded with “the best people in the industry”. 

The hairshirt counter-narrative holds that cutting back on time at work has already been tried and failed in France, whose 35-hour week was introduced in 1998 and coincided with a period of slack growth and high unemployment – so it didn’t even achieve the basic aim of sharing work out among more people. And Goldman Sachs has famously / notoriously declined to cut hours expected of new hires (who complained of working 95 a week), noting that clients like it when they “go the extra mile”.

Fewer meetings. Shorter meetings. Less commuting. Less presentism. More time to live. A shift towards a four-day week is likely to be one of many trends accelerated by Covid, enabled by technology and enabling, among other things, significant cuts in carbon emissions. One study says the UK could cut its footprint with a four-day week by 20 per cent. But one country unlikely to be embracing it any time soon is… the UK, which for some reason is suffering its most acute labour shortage since 1997. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Haiti in turmoil
Eleven years ago the world descended on Haiti to help its people dig out from under a disastrous earthquake. Rich countries promised to end the destitution of the poorest in the western hemisphere. It is now close to being a failed state. 17 people have been arrested after the murder of President Jovenel Moise in his private residence on Wednesday. Police say many of them are hired Columbian hitmen and more are on the run. Two Americans are among those being held. No one knows who’s in charge of the country or whether this was foreign meddling or an attempted coup. The promises in 2010 included earnest undertakings to help Haiti build a stable, functioning democracy. They have come to nothing.   

New things technology, science, engineering

Long range
How does 500 miles sound? Stellantis, the car giant that owns Citroen, Peugeot, Fiat, Vauxhall and other brands, says it envisages 500-mile battery packs that recharge at 20 miles a minute in reasonably priced EVs by 2030. It could be all talk, but the company will die if it is, and assuming it isn’t it’s worth considering that 500 miles is nearly twice the range you get from an average petrol tank. You can already buy EVs with a 500-mile range, but only for a king’s ransom. Bring on the revolution. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Opioid agreement
It’s not a done deal yet, but 15 US states that previously opposed a settlement deal offered by the billionaire makers of Oxycontin have now signed up to it. The Sackler family were the chief beneficiaries of the addictive opioid painkiller aggressively marketed for two decades in the US by Purdue Pharma, which they controlled. They have offered a total of about $4.5 billion in compensation for a drug epidemic that killed 500,000 Americans and tore the hearts out of entire communities. In return, they seek immunity from prosecution and the right to keep the rest of their money. Nine states and DC have not signed on. The attorney general of Washington state told the AP: “This settlement plan allows the Sacklers to walk away as billionaires with a legal shield for life.” No member of the family has admitted wrongdoing. New York state’s AG hasn’t signed on either. The first thing she wants is an apology.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cachou the bear
Who killed Cachou? He was a six-year-old brown bear who roamed the High Pyrenees near the border between France and Spain. Last year he was poisoned with antifreeze in remote country mid-way between Barcelona and the Atlantic, and his death has become the subject of the first criminal investigation of its kind in the history of modern Spain. It’s also the subject of an extraordinary long read for Bloomberg. And the answer? No one knows, but some determined characters are on the case and they suspect their culprit was the victim of a bear attack who targeted the wrong bear. Not because Cachou was necessarily innocent, but because he wore a tag, was found and autopsied, yielding a ton of evidence. About 40 bears have died in the Pyrenees since 1996, including Cachou’s father, Balou, who was “struck by lightning and fell off a cliff”.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Shonda rules
Netflix has signed Shonda Rhimes, creator of multiple hit series including Bridgerton, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, to a multi-year deal that cements her status as the most sought-after showrunner in TV. Netflix wouldn’t say what the deal is worth but it was already paying Rhimes a reported $30 million a year, rising to about $40 million with bonuses for Bridgerton’s prodigious viewing numbers, and to about $70 million, according to Forbes, when you include income from her other series. Before declaring her independence as head of her own company Rhimes produced shows that earned Disney an estimated $2 billion. “It’s really startling to realize how much money your work is earning for a place and then to discover how much they think you’re worth versus that,” she tells Forbes. “I deserve every penny.”

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Netflix, Getty Images