Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Four-Day Workweek as a Policy Option for Australia

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Four-Day Workweek as a Policy Option for Australia

Article excerpt

The image of a world in which people are freed from compulsory toil and drudgery has long captured the imaginations of philosophers, visionaries, and ordinary men and women. From medieval folk fantasies to techno-socialist utopias, people have dreamed of the abolition of work and its replacement by expanded leisure and freely chosen activity. There are, of course, other traditions that emphasise the central importance of work to human life on an individual and social level. The impulse to achieve 'freedom from work' and the principle of the 'right to meaningful work' may well pull in different directions in relation to attempts to renegotiate our relationship to work. However, regardless of which of these goals is accorded the higher priority, it is clear that neither the radical democratisation of leisure nor universal access to meaningful work has been achieved.

It is in this broader context that we can usefully consider the potential for a Four-Day Workweek (4DW) to serve as a compromise between utopian and pragmatic goals in relation to the future of work.

The article is divided into three parts, according to its theoretical, historical, and institutional levels of analysis. The first part analyses the case for change in the nature and extent of work and outlines the basic arguments for a 4DW in Australia. The second part focuses on the US experience in the 1970s and during the Great Recession, leading to a brief assessment of the implications of this experience for a 4DW in Australia. The third part includes a short case study of an Australian workplace that provides the option of a 4DW to its staff as part of its commitment to alternative work schedules (AWS) and flexible work practices. Drawing on these findings, the article concludes by arguing that the goal of 4DW based on reduced working hours without reduced pay could form part of a new politics of shorter hours and chosen time that is developed by a progressive political coalition.

The Case for Change in the Nature and Extent of Work

Utopian and Pragmatic Arguments

Work is one of life's main experiences and, as such, it is no surprise that its nature and extent have featured prominently in utopian visions of the future. As Skidelsky and Skidelsky (2012: 44) put it: 'Men and women have always dreamt of a world without suffering, injustice and above all, without work' (Skidelsky and Skidelsky, 2012: 44). The dream manifest in folk utopias, such as the medieval fantasy Land of Cockaigne, is one of a spontaneous deliverance from work by means of divine providence, or some other form of magic (Skidelsky and Skidelsky, 2012). For Oscar Wilde (1891), and other advocates of techno-socialist utopias, the dream is also of deliverance from work, but by technology, and to the end of the full development of individuality. This vision of freedom from compulsory work is also clear in Marx and Engels' The German Ideology (1932) and in Andre Gorz's sketch of a future based on a 'society of chosen time and multi-activity' (Gorz, 1999: 65). In Gorz's vision: 'Social time and space will have to be organised to indicate the general expectation that everybody will engage in a range of different activities and modes of membership of society' from 'a self-providing cooperative, a service exchange network, a scientific research and experiment group, an orchestra or a choir, a drama, dance or painting workshop, a sports club, a yoga or judo group' (Gorz, 1999: 78).

The implications of these, among other, utopian visions for the future of work are clear: work as drudgery should be progressively reduced and/or eliminated, while work as one element of freely-chosen activity should be progressively expanded and democratised.

The pragmatic case for reduced working hours and expanded leisure within the limits of capitalism draws on both philosophical arguments and cultural preferences regarding the desirability of leisure and political economic analysis of the potential for evolutionary change to working hours. …

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