Think about next Friday. Imagine having it off. How would you use your extra day of freedom? Would you sleep? Catch up on doctor appointments? Call your friend? Spend all night watching movies with your family?
If it feels strange to imagine slowing down, then you’re not alone. We are living in a crisis of exhaustion, which in turn feeds a common tendency, or compulsion, to live life at maximum speed and efficiency — this was true before COVID-19 and is increasingly alarming now. We use phrases like “spend your time” because U.S. culture taught us that time is money; if we don’t use it, we “waste” time.
There are myriad reasons for the fact that we bring economic language into our everyday life, but one of the primary ones is simple: We work too damn much. A common response to the banality of excess work is that it’s necessary to get everything done — and that’s true. Between our daily political crises, health care system failures, the worsening climate crisis, racist and gender-based violence, ever-growing inequity, and the new stress of reviving our social lives in an ongoing pandemic, those of us who want to transform our communities have little time to waste. But these days, I think we have little to gain by following the same patterns of labor that landed us here.
This is why I’ve been an advocate and member of 4 Day Week: a campaign to reduce working hours, without reducing pay or benefits, starting with an ongoing petition campaign to recruit organizations to try it out in 2022. Here are three reasons why I’m on board, and why you should be too.
We Deserve, and Should Demand, Time to Rest and Recuperate
Perusing the Google search results of “future of work” will yield many results about automation and training digital skills, but very few on the well-being and material realities of workers left outside of the picture. Amid the current wave of worker exhaustion and dissatisfaction, the four-day workweek is first and foremost a tool that we can use to give us the tangible benefit of more time away from work to rest and recuperate.
The benefits of a four-day workweek to us as individuals and our work culture are clear: better physical and mental health, fewer burnt-out employees, more equitable workplace outcomes, and so on. But to me, a reduction of working hours for the same pay isn’t about those benefits — it’s fundamentally about justice. It should be workers and communities who reap the gains of technological innovation and “efficiency,” not just the executives and shareholders of corporations that increasingly perfect their tactics of excessive accumulation.
When we think about the future of work, we must realize we’re long overdue for innovations in the basic assumptions about how and why we work. The five-day, 40-hour workweek was invented for a version of work and life that made sense to businesses and workers in 1908. Is it not long past the time to question why we are using this more than 100-year-old, arbitrary system? Why can’t we change it and move toward something better? The COVID-19 pandemic and its ever-unfolding influence have shown us that transformation in work is both necessary and possible, and as fewer people return to work or want to return to offices, it’s the perfect time to consider a four-day week.
Here, it is important to note the foundational and inspirational work of Tricia Hersey, the founder of The Nap Ministry, an organization and practice that examines the liberatory potential of rest. She says it’s time to claim our right to rest and our right to refuse the grind culture of modern capitalism. Hersey, who for the last five years has led this platform, practice and movement, proclaims our need to rest as an inherent right, a spiritual necessity and an anti-capitalist resistance of white supremacy culture. In a recent post, she simply states: “Stop saying rest is a luxury or a privilege. It is not — it’s a human right.”
A Four-Day Week Would Center Humanity, Life and Sustainability — Not Output
Let’s go back to those classic U.S. ideas of “time is money,” “wasting time” or even “living to work.” There has been a steady march toward the “workification” or “economization” of every aspect of modern life, especially in the 21st century. As Amelia Horgan writes in her recent book, Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism:
[Work] creeps in several directions. We work harder at work. We work longer hours. At work, we are expected to use our emotions and personalities for the benefit of our employers. Outside of our official working hours, we are called upon to excavate more of our social lives, turning hobbies into side gigs so that we can survive on our current jobs’ meagre salaries and scrape enough social and cultural capital or resources to get another job in the future.
This is not the result of a few overzealous employers. We’re trapped in a work culture that promotes the ideas of dedication to the workplace “team” or “mission” at all costs. What if time were life? What if people were valued not for their economic potential but for their humanity? What if we adopted a system of creation that centered sustainability over commodity production?
The four-day workweek alone can’t guarantee these futures, but it does allow us to talk about life beyond livelihood and “economic worth.”
For so many of us — advocates, social workers, activists, organizers, lawyers, policy makers, and more — work often consumes all our time, energy and mental health. This is the foundation of burnout. This too, is exploitation. So why not solve a problem at its root cause? Social justice movements and work are necessary and urgent, but in working to change the society we live in, we must push back against the toxic overwork and urgency that is so prevalent in our organizations and in ourselves.
I don’t want to rise and grind anymore. I want to show up more fully for my family, my friends and the causes I care for. I simply can’t do that if I’m exhausted every single day. Fighting for the change we want in the world does not have to grind us to our bones. In fact, we can’t allow that; we can’t expect to show up every single day without enough rest to solve today’s challenges. We are people, not machines, and a four-day workweek represents a step toward a culture that rebalances our lives, our relationships with work and our impact on each other.
More Time Off the Clock Means More Time Strengthening Broader Social Justice Efforts
Let’s take a look at an indirect benefit of a four-day workweek: Less time away from one another means more time with one another, building space and capacity for mutual aid, neighbors and communities.
Our time shouldn’t be replaced with another coercive requirement. The day must be for us, our loved ones and our chosen communities. With that additional time, not only will we be healthier and more capable of living our lives outside of work, but we will enhance our capacity for collective organization and social change. After all, research suggests that rest improves our attention and performance; why would this not be true for our movements?
We cannot expect to transform the world if we are not transforming our movements and organizations on a day-to-day basis. adrienne maree brown wrote about this similar conundrum over a decade ago when she led the Ruckus Society to change its concrete principles, actions and structures to reflect its vision of broader transformation. We now need to do the same when it comes to centering life, not output.
Sometimes I think organizing efforts fizzle or eventually disband because it’s someone’s third or fourth side project, and grind culture keeps us going until we literally break down — unless funding and a staff come along. (And even then we lose so much to the grind of the nonprofit-industrial complex.) The four-day workweek might shift our work culture to a more balanced place, where we have actual time to think about our own priorities, what we want to spend energy on, and how we can do it given our constraints. That balance might in turn create an aperture, an opening to a new future where we have gained some slight traction in the fight against injustice.
We Are at the Beginning of Something Big — But We Must Fight For Comprehensive Change
It bears stating that the four-day workweek is just one tool and a starting point. This should be just the beginning of a long, transformative journey.
Even so, for some, pushing for a four-day workweek in our current labor environment may seem distracting, even trivial. Certainly, what is at stake seems less urgent than other ongoing battles like the fight for $15; unionization efforts by teachers and Amazon warehouse workers; strikes at Frito-Lay and Nabisco factories; and the struggle for dignity for workers in the gig economy, domestic and care work.
There is also no doubt that to date, the four-day workweek conversation has centered white-collar office work. This criticism is fair, and the push for a four-day workweek must clearly do more to strongly center the working class, and low-wage and gig workers, especially. But other critiques that simply think it’s not possible are from writers and thinkers who don’t have the imagination, or belief, that how we spend our time is actually up to us.
What is clear is that if a four-day workweek remains a perk granted by employers, and not a systemic change, then this criticism will absolutely be true. While these groups of workers who would benefit are absolutely not all owners and managers, there is no denying that they are not the most exploited by our current system.
It is for precisely this reason, among others, that I would urge those of us who see the current system as broken to consider the transformative potential of a four-day workweek standard. As a foundational policy and movement, the four-day workweek might return material benefits to workers whether they’re a server or a health care worker.
If you agree, I urge you to sign and share my organization, 4 Day Week’s call to action and pass on the message that the future of work must be a future of transformation and justice for all — finally.