Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Maryland is striking a blow at the absurd American culture of over-work.
State lawmakers have put forward a bill that would incentivize companies to move to a four-day work week, offering $750,000 in tax breaks for organizations that move a sufficient number of employees over to a four-day, 32-hour-a-week schedule. This would be part of a state-wide pilot program in which the state Department of Labor would gather data to get a better sense of what a shorter workweek might mean for employees, productivity and the bottom line.
In the last few decades, American work life has undergone a revolution. Technology has made many of our jobs more desk-bound and more efficient. Automation has replaced many forms of manual labor. Working women, once an anomaly, are a standard part of a workforce that is more diverse and better-educated than at any point in American history.
American workers are remarkably productive, but while they have spent the last 50 years steadily producing more and more, real wages have not risen at the same rate. We are, in other words, doing more for less. And this is all despite the promises of technology – to free us from drudgery so that we might spend more of our time on creative pursuits, or with family, or doing what brings us joy.
Instead, it seems, technological innovations have just made us more tethered to machines and devices (while machines also threaten to take over our creative works). Why are we doing this to ourselves?
The truth is that it’s human beings – us – who build our societies, workplaces and economies. There is nothing innate or natural about a five-day workweek, and the 40-hour workweek was not handed down from God. Yet suggestions that we change it can feel like an affront to ambition or the American work ethic, or simply an impossibility.
But the only reason a five-day, 40-hour workweek feels normal and necessary is because we’ve made it that way. We can – and should – adapt, especially when the best available research suggests a four-day workweek could be of mutual benefit to workers and companies. How many policy innovations can boast the same?
The Maryland proposal comes on the heels of an important study of 30 companies over six months that tried out a four-day workweek. The results were impressive: greater productivity despite fewer hours in the office, higher employee satisfaction, easier retention of existing employees and hiring of new ones.
If the proposed Maryland bill passes, it would arm researchers and policymakers with even more information about shorter workweeks, and hopefully allow lawmakers and employers to begin to craft better policies that keep the US economically competitive while also shifting cultural norms toward a healthier relationship to work, with Americans having the necessary time to rest, rejuvenate and have lives outside of their jobs.
The four-day workweek isn’t actually all that radical. The whole concept of a “weekend” was itself an invention, brought about largely thanks to the advocacy of trade unions – and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the 48-hour weekend was properly established.
That was almost 100 years ago, and despite the radical reshaping of our workplaces – very few jobs today look like work did in the 1930s – our workweeks have stayed stubbornly the same. Just as Saturday afternoons off and, eventually, a 48-hour weekend were controversial innovations that had to be fought for by workers and didn’t always please employers, a four-day workweek will no doubt see pushback from people who fear any change will be for the worse.
But that fear may very well be misplaced. I am a sample size of one, and as a freelancer my hours are all over the place, but I will often at least try to schedule out my week so I am working four full days rather than five (or sometimes seven) partial ones. Creating these boundaries around my working hours means that I am much more focused and efficient; I spend less time perusing social media or doing non-work tasks so that I can enjoy the reward of a free Friday.
Many of us probably already do this in anticipation of the weekend, grinding hard on Thursdays and Fridays so that we aren’t stuck doing work on Saturday or Sunday. A four-day workweek, or a 32-hour workweek in which an employee comes in for five days but for fewer than 8 hours would have a similar effect: less wasted time at work in the service of more personal or leisure time later.
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We are three years into a pandemic that upended work life (and life-life) as many of us knew it. We are living in an era in which out-of-work demands, most especially parenting and other forms of caregiving, are more extreme than ever. And we are living in a country that, unlike other nations, provides meager support as its people strive to balance it all: a slim majority of Americans and a strong majority of workers still get health insurance from our employers, there is no universal childcare on offer and we have no guaranteed paid parental leave – let alone enough sick days or vacation that we are empowered to take, even when offered them.
No wonder so many workers report being fed up and burned out. No wonder so many women, who continue to do the lion’s share of the nation’s parenting, drop out of the workforce.
None of that bodes well for the US economy, let alone human health and wellbeing. A four-day workweek isn’t a magic bullet. But it may be one piece of a larger set of changes that Americans desperately need. And Maryland, hopefully, can take one tiny step forward with this bill, which would let a handful of workers and employers experiment with what may be the future of work, while gathering crucial information that will, hopefully, lead the rest of us forward.