The weekend as we know it is only around 100 years old. In the 19th century, people in industrialized countries worked about 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Unionization started a drive for less work and more leisure that has resulted in a more-or-less standard 40-hour workweek in the West today. But now there’s a move to cut our working time again. Non-profit 4 Day Week Global says that employees with four day weeks are happier, healthier, and less stressed—even as their productivity is maintained or even improved. So if the future of work is less of it, what are the carbon implications?
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Less Work, Less Carbon
1. Commuting is polluting. With Americans typically driving an hour every day for work, commuting makes up around 98% of a worker’s carbon footprint. COVID lockdowns proved this out, with global daily CO2 emissions falling by about 17% as people stayed at home. In 2015, Swedish researchers calculated that decreasing working hours by 1% would cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 0.8%, with further reductions giving further savings.
2. Home is where the savings are. One of the best things we can do for the planet is just stay home. A decade-spanning study found that Americans spent 8 more days at home in 2012 compared to 2003. Even after accounting for increased energy use at home, the savings from transportation reduced the country’s total energy usage by an estimated 1.8%.
3. How short should we go? Philipp Frey, writing for the UK thinktank Autonomy, suggests that instead of worrying how to maximize our economic performance at work, the climate crisis “raises the question of how much work can we afford.” Assuming a proportional relationship between labor time and greenhouse emissions, Frey calculates that staying within a sustainable carbon budget would require working time to be cut by almost 80 percent, making the new full-time working week just nine hours long. He concedes that such a radical transformation of society could not happen overnight.
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It’s Not The Hours, It’s The Activity
1. Welcome to the carbon party. How we might use our longer weekends is crucial. If workers rack up air miles, drive to the beach, and eat out more in their extra time—all highly carbon-intensive leisure activities according to an Austrian study of daily life—their carbon footprint could be much higher than either sitting in an office, or spending time with friends and family at home.
2. Location, location, location. As travel is responsible for almost all of a person’s work-related emissions, we would get much bigger carbon cuts from full-time remote working rather than 4-day a week commuting. Thus, getting as many people as possible working from home—and cutting down on business trips—makes more sense than just giving them longer weekends. The long-term data on whether people enjoy working from home is still out—some surveys suggest they’re happier, while others found this effect disappeared after controlling for other workplace factors, such as salary.
3. Renegotiating work in a warmer world. If society is going to reinvent work, policies other than the four-day work week might be more effective at fighting climate change. We could time-shift some activities, particularly outside tasks like agriculture, to the cooler parts of the day. Or retrofit office buildings to leverage passive heating and cooling technologies that are less economical for domestic homes.
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What to Keep An Eye on
1. Real world trials. There have been trials of shorter working weeks in Europe, Asia, Oceania, and America. At the halfway point of a six-month trial in the UK, where around 70 firms are paying employees 100% of their salary for 80% of their normal hours, the majority maintained or improved productivity.
2. Affordability. If a day’s less work means a day’s less pay—and potentially cuts to benefits like health insurance—will only the rich be able to afford it? Others might have to scramble for gig work, undoing all the good of the shorter work week.
3. Schools and colleges. The school week and the work week are joined at the hip. A Kansas school district is proposing to move its students to a four-day school week. This could accelerate the move for local companies to follow suit—or risk the wrath of parents.
Art: ©Anthropocene Magazine