The Four-day week: How soon?Daniel Seligman
Fortune -- July 1954
How far off is the four-day week? The standard five-day week has been lodged in American life for only a decade or so. Yet for some reason it is widely regarded today as something natural and immutable. Recently, Fortune mailed a questionnaire about the feasibility of a four-day week to fifty large industrial firms (more than 30,000 employees) and fifty medium-sized companies (300 to 3,000 employees). If there is a single U. S. company whose spokesmen are willing to affirm that a four-day week is possible and desirable in the fairly near future, it has not been found.
The fact that most American businessmen regard any future four-day week with misgivings and even hostility does not, of course, mean it is never coming. A quarter of a century ago there was a great debate about the five-day week. Speaking for the affirmative, but almost alone among businessmen, was Henry Ford. He had introduced the five-day week, he said shortly after the event, “because without leisure the working men— who are the largest buyers in the country—cannot have the time to cultivate a higher standard of living and, therefore, to increase their purchasing power.” Virtually all the businessmen who addressed themselves to the subject found differently. In general, they had three major objections to the five-day week: the cost would be prohibitive; the workers would not know what to do with their leisure time; and there was Biblical sanction for the six-day week.
An important reason for the cautiously noncommittal attitude of business men today is that their employees have been unionized. To declare that a four-day week might soon be feasible would be to give, gratis, a large bargaining counter to the union. On the other hand, to suggest that employees cannot look for any more leisure time would be inept public relations.
Labor leaders also appear to he preoccupied elsewhere. It is true that both the major labor federations have clearly defined ideas about affording more leisure for the American worker. But these do not include the four-day week—yet.
If both labor and management are uninterested in the four-day week, what good reasons are there for talking about it? Briefly, two kinds of reasons might be adduced: The four day week would be desirable, both for business and employees; and it would almost certainly be attainable.
The major reason for thinking a four-day week feasible is, of course, the continually increasing productivity of U. S. industry. Productivity—i.e., output per man-hour—has been rising by 2 or 3 per cent a year, taking the economy as a whole, for more than fifty years now. And, barring a war or a prolonged depression, Americans clearly have some further benefits in store. The question is whether they will take these benefits in the form of increased income, increased leisure time, or in a combination of both.
A calculation made by Fortune for the years since 1929 suggests that in the past quarter-century U. S. workers have been taking about 60 per cent of the productivity pie in the form of income, about 40 per cent as leisure. Assuming that the four-day week for non-agricultural employees will be attained when the total work week is in the vicinity of 32 hours, that productivity continues to increase at an average of 2 or 3 per cent a year, and that something on the order of the recent 60-40 ratio for income and leisure continues in effect, the 32-hour week should be spread throughout the whole non-farm economy in about 25 years.
If the four-day week seemed sufficiently appealing, of course, it could be achieved much sooner. A lot of Americans might, in other words, he willing to work nine hours a day. That, theoretically, would enable them to enjoy the four-day week when total hours of work were down to 36. If they made such a decision—if they traded the eight-hour day for the three-day weekend—then the great event would he scheduled to arrive, not around 1980, but in the 1960’s.
A large number of business men maintain that the four-day week has no applicability to their own operations. The following problems are suggestive of the wide variety of “insurmountable” obstacles that would he encountered:
• Manufacturing companies with three-shift operations would run into formidable scheduling difficulties if the nine-hour day were introduced.A final question must be considered. Do workers really want more leisure? Many employers are still convinced they do not. Now there is no doubt that, given more time off, some workers might drink too much, or beat their wives, or go insane watching daytime television. Others might work themselves to death on second jobs. But the $30-billion leisure market, the remarkable emergence, almost from nowhere, of a huge, new do-it-yourself market, and even the familiar Sunday-afternoon sight of cars crawling along bumper to bumper, suggest strongly that most American workers have a pretty good idea of what to do with their time off.
• Companies whose total hours of operation could not be reduced would have to hire more employees.
• Retailing provides a peculiarly difficult situation. To remain open six days and give their employees a four-day week, department stores would have to hire 25 per cent more workers than they now employ.
Meanwhile, in the income-leisure choice for the years ahead, there will be one strong pressure for leisure: The workers who have been energetically pushing their way into the middle-income class have, naturally, become increasingly preoccupied with federal tax demands. "If we get more dough," said one AFL man recently, "the government can take back part of it. But they haven’t yet figured out a way to tax your day off."