Addition by Subtraction?

The four-day work week can help create a sustainable workforce, says Lonnie Golden, economics professor at Penn State Abington.

illustration of a May calendar with four days X-ed out and a three-day weekend marked in red, by Nick Sloff '92 A&A

“The idea of limiting the work week is not new. During the Great Depression, firms cut it from 48 to 32 hours, or even 28, to avoid layoffs. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime to all employees who worked beyond 44 hours a week, and in 1940, the 40-hour work week became the standard. But this gradually led to a polarized workplace: noncovered, salaried people’s hours were inching up, they weren’t getting any overtime pay, and hourly workers were either kept at 40 hours a week or sometimes below that.

“Since the pandemic, many companies have been reconfiguring the work week, such as capping it at four days a week, or seven hours a day, to see if the same amount of productivity can be squeezed out in fewer hours. So far, employees are loving it, and employers seem content enough that they’re willing to continue. There is new evidence coming out that people wish to keep the reallocation of time, particularly the reduced commuting time, which is mostly translating into greater time working.

“With so many employers finding it hard to retain employees, I think there’s more focus now by both employers and employees on sustainability. I believe the four-day work week can offer a model that’s more holistically sustainable to all because it allows employers to shift some work around. I think it’s the win-win solution to the polarization in the workplace, that when some people go down to a four-day work week—and they’re almost as productive—it would encourage employers to shift some of their work toward others who really need the additional hours and the income.”