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The Pandemic Case for the Two-Day Workweek

The ongoing national nightmare makes it clear that we need to disentangle work from basic needs like health care and housing—and then do way, way less of it.

Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

It’s not like you really need data to confirm that things are bad right now—being alive and awake should take care of that—but the latest reports do support the general thesis: Coronavirus infections are spiking yet again, violence stalks Tuesday’s election, 22.7 million people remain unemployed, and the Senate has once again casually abandoned a second stimulus bill. The onset of longer nights and drearier weather, The Washington Post noted last week, also means that seasonal affective disorder has begun to collide with so-called pandemic fatigue and other mental health issues exacerbated by the social isolation of lockdown, which have been exacerbated by the failed political response to the pandemic. Worse still, because the mounting psychological distress is so much a product of external factors, we’re even running up against the limits of therapy itself. As The Cut’s Katie Heaney recently wrote, “How does texting with a therapist address the problems of overwork or a total lack of child care?”

Which is to say that if you’re like everyone else who’s now patiently waiting to emerge from this waking nightmare, it’s probably the case that you don’t feel much like being at work this week. Or perhaps you’re one of the tens of millions of people who were laid off, and are now in the ridiculous position of gamely trying to find a new job during a still-active pandemic and wondering why, in the richest country in the world, so much of our basic material safety net is entirely contingent on our jobs. In any case, the current punishing brew of the unfolding mental health crisis; widespread unemployment; and rapidly increasing burnout for frontline workers, caregivers, and others suggests that it’s time for a radical reorganization of work. Right about now, we all need a two-day workweek.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously speculated that his grandchildren might only work 15 hours per week—which, spread across consecutive 7.5-hour workdays, amounts to a two-day workweek—thanks to technological advances and consequent increases in productivity and efficiency. Of course, nearly a century since his prediction, it seems only like wishful thinking. According to sociologist Jamie McCallum, Americans’ work hours have in fact increased, on the whole, since the 1970s. Much of today’s overwork is driven by part-time hours and unpredictable scheduling within the low-wage sector, a practice that forces workers to cobble together a living from multiple unstable jobs, as well as spend more and more time looking for work, traveling between jobs, or preparing for their next shift. “Overwork and underwork are both two sides of the same coin, with a shared feature of increasing stress and intensity, and people sometimes even experience them simultaneously,” McCallum told Jacobin last month.

While no nation has yet achieved the 15-hour workweek, Keynes was nevertheless correct that advancements in technology and efficiency have made it possible to reduce working hours while still keeping the economy running. (The late anthropologist David Graeber argued that “bullshit jobs” have proliferated to fill the gap between the amount of labor that society needs to keep functioning and the number of people who need jobs to survive.) In other words, the tightening vise of simultaneous overwork and underwork—perhaps never more visible than during a pandemic that resulted in mass layoffs and explicitly divided the workforce into essential and nonessential workers—is only the product of various political commitments, not some immutable aspect of nature. As sociologist Juliet Schor told Marketwatch earlier this year, it was the erosion of organized labor and decades of stagnant wages that made it impossible for workers, rather than employers, to benefit from increases in productivity. “Employers have had increasing desire for workers to work long hours,” she said. “And workers haven’t had the power to resist that upward pressure.”

But given that our world has now been upended in so many other ways, a sweeping reorganization of work maybe isn’t so far-fetched as it once was. “In the immediate term, we should be fighting for things like shorter workweeks, steeply increased overtime pay, lower retirement ages, expanded social security, family leave, paid vacation, paid sick leave, child allowances, and sabbaticals,” the critic Miya Tokumitsu wrote in a call for more leisure time for all. As it happens, those are all things that would have mitigated the strain of the pandemic from the start. Together, they also point the way toward a life in which no one dies from overwork, or has to make the outrageous choice between making rent or seeing their kids, or is pushed to the verge of a breakdown when schools close unexpectedly. A society-wide reduction in work doesn’t automatically have to entail chronic or wide-scale underemployment for the masses; it can also simply mean spreading out the work that needs to be done (and the fruits of that labor) more fairly across the population.

We’ve known for some time that residents of countries that collectively work less as a result of strong social provisions are much happier than we are. (“Family life balance is phenomenally better than it would be back in the U.S.,” an American transplant to Denmark, which consistently ranks as the happiest country on earth, marveled to CBS a few years ago. “The Danes, they leave work at five o’clock and they’re home for dinner by 5:30.”) Even just in the United States, smaller experiments to recalibrate the balance of the time workers split between work and leisure have generated measurable improvements in people’s quality of life: Throughout the pandemic, the city of Stockton, California, has continued a universal basic income program, which residents say has dramatically reduced their stress and allowed them to spend more time with their families. And if the hypothetical two-day workweek would free up much-needed time to better care for ourselves and one another—not to mention pursue interests and passions that have nothing to do with our waged work or hold any promise of monetization—it would also free us, if we wanted, to do absolutely nothing at all.

We won’t, of course, achieve a two-day workweek by the end of the pandemic, nor even, probably, in this lifetime. But perhaps in this moment, resurrecting Keynes’s ill-fated prophecy can be another way of saying we’re long overdue for some kind of reduction of how much we work. And in any case, I suspect most people would settle for four.