The Four-Day Work Week Is Decades Away

Billionaires and Bernie Sanders agree on at least one thing: They see a four-day work week in America’s future. Hedge fund manager Steve Cohen is investing in golf courses because he anticipates a big increase in leisure time, and IAC founder Barry Diller is expecting people to be in the office only four days a week. The senator from Vermont, meanwhile, has proposed legislation that will set the work week to 32 hours.

Put me down as skeptical. Some big technological innovations promise to make people more productive, but a four-day work week will not be the norm anytime soon. And legislation imposing it over the next four years would harm the economy.

The first question is what a “four-day work week” means. Sometimes it means working 40 hours in four days instead of five, though this tends to be less efficient. Or it may mean working an eight-hour day four days a week, which is what Sanders has in mind. Both kinds of arrangements have become more common over the years in the US and elsewhere — though much of the increase is among people who work fewer than 40 hours.

As for the merits of the idea: There are basically two arguments for a shorter work week. One presumes that people waste so much time at work that working 20% less won’t make a difference if they use the time more efficiently. A few small studies, mainly in non-customer-facing service jobs, find that a 20% drop in hours does not result in a decline in revenue.

But whether this finding applies to more labor-intensive jobs is doubtful. The only large experiment comes from France, which imposed a 35-hour work week in 1998 on large firms, with the hope it would increase employment. Studies show it did not increase employment or happiness — and France later tried to appeal it.

The Sanders bill is in many ways worse than the French law. Like that law, it does not force people to work fewer hours. Instead, it lowers the threshold at which overtime pay kicks in. The Sanders bill also stipulates that employers can’t reduce pay if people work fewer hours as a result, so for some workers it would be akin to a 20% pay increase on an hourly basis.