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The Four Day Work Week Is Non-Negotiable for Parents Right Now

Across the pond, politicians have proposed a 32 hour workweek. Parents in the United States should propose one, too.

Working parents have now all taken on a second full-time job. Thanks to the global pandemic of COVID-19, full time childcare has fallen on 9-5 parents who are now tasked with somehow incorporating that full-time job remotely, all while also making sure their kids are meeting remote learning expectations, and keeping their stress in check. This is to say nothing about meal planning and showering. So, what’s the solution? Last year, the UK actually started pushing for a four-day-work-week, and it’s time for Americans to start thinking seriously about it, too.

In September of 2019, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party leader John McDonnell announced that the party would officially back a four-day (or 32 hour) workweek in order to increase work-life balance. It would be made available to the entire country within 10 years and, per McDonnell, would come without a reduction in pay. “As society got richer, we could spend fewer hours at work,” McDonnell said in his speech. “But in recent decades progress has stalled, and since the 1980s the link between increasing productivity and expanding free time has been broken. It’s time to put that right.”

It is hard to overstate how much has changed in the labor market since September and in the past 20 years. Namely, back in September, there was not a global pandemic that would plunge the global economy into a free-fall, and force millions of middle-class workers lucky enough to be able to do their jobs from home to do so. Some 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment last week alone, and economists suggest that the unemployment rate in the United States is now somewhere between 12 and 13 percent.

But one of those changes has compounded the need for flexibility in the workplace: and that is the fact that as child care centers and schools close, dual-income households have been tasked with trying to figure out how to parent their children while doing their jobs.

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“Anybody with children under the age of 11, at home, how on earth you manage keeping them engaged, trying to ensure they learn some small amount, and letting you get some work done at the same time? You just can’t work,” says Matthew Bidwell, associate professor of management at Wharton and researcher and expert on the labor market.

The four-day workweek has long been a fringe policy or idea for labor organizers and economists. But way back in September, McDonnell was correct: before the 1980s, there was a real and present link between increasing productivity at work and having more time outside of work to enjoy life’s pleasures. Instead, the managerial directive shifted towards overwork and longer weeks while also increasing productivity without much of an increase in wages. The UK Labour party endorsing the four-day workweek represents a real shift toward increasing work-life balance, and a shift that would be a major boon to parents in the workplace. 

The U.S. has yet to come to the same conclusion. This is despite the fact that a two-parent household works about 390 more hours — or a total of 48 more standard eight-hour workdays — every year than they did in 1978. Managerial and professional workers — who are, in normal times, often on the clock while at home with their families, answering emails and doing late-night work calls — and those who work in the gig economy, experience “schedule creep,” which is when part-time workers or full-time workers have their hours increased significantly without any compensation in pay.

But right now, with the workplace at home, parents are with “schedule creep” on steroids. There is no schedule creep so much as there is no schedule — and no real way to navigate a 40-hour workweek with a 24-hour-a-day job of being a parent.

“The 32-hour workweek is predicated on it being very clear what’s work and what’s not work,” says Bidwell. “So a lot of these ideas of the ‘X hour workweek’ is based on us all working in offices.” That means that there are 32 or 40 good hours spent in the office, and outside of the office, no one is expected to work. But the current set up makes what already didn’t exist more or less impossible. “You’re trying to work while, every 10 minutes, you’re yelling at your kid, and every five minutes, your kid yells at you,” he notes.

The blended workplace that parents are forced to navigate makes even the concept of working “hours” hard to pin down. “The work bleeds across the day,” he says. “There are more people working in the evenings and getting less done during [traditional work hours.] Even our ability to count how many hours we’re actually working gets harder.”

Such a demand understandably puts parents in a bind. In the past, this meant more time away from home, rather than more time working at home, in short windows, whenever parents can get a moment in. Back then, parents struggled to find non-traditional child care arrangements. Many of those arrangements in some states cost more than tuition at a four-year public college. Now, parents are doing two jobs at once, and most likely, poorly.

I think that some people are very good at juggling their family and non-family demands. But there’s all this research that multitasking is hard, and we’re much worse at it than we think we are.”

Meanwhile, wage growth has largely been stuck in neutral, and in this economy, workers should expect more of the same. American parents continue to work longer hours, functionally take on two jobs, and don’t have the money to show for it. But some companies already shifted their models of employment before the crisis.

Fifteen percent of companies in the U.S. now offer a four-day workweek, or 32 hours of work a week for at least some employees — like people who drive trucks, and those who work in warehouses. But even some desk-jobs are shifting to shorter hours with more days or longer hours with fewer days. One CEO shifted her employees to four, 10-hour workdays, and says that their productivity rate has gone up 25 percent and that her company has boosted recruitment, making it easier to hire and retain employees. 

But while private companies can make decisions about how they schedule their full-time employees, if a 32-hour workweek were endorsed by the government, the shifting norms of what it means to have a full-time job would benefit working parents — and especially moms — the most in a healthy economy. 

“Moving to a 32-hour workweek would do wonders for gender equality. Particularly among professional and managerial workers, a big driver of inequality is that there are phases of the career, particularly around raising children, where… women move to reduced hours of work and take time off,” says Bidwell. “That drives huge differences in pay and promotions for men versus women. If everybody was on a work schedule that created more time and didn’t force those kinds of tradeoffs, it would, I think, substantially reduce those gaps.”

He’s right: the motherhood penalty —  a reduction in wages that occurs when women have children — is enormous. Women can expect to see a decrease in pay up to 4-percent for each baby they have — while men can actually expect a boost in pay of up to 6-percent after having a baby. Seventy-five percent of America’s moms are in the workplace. But even if you’re not a new mom or even if you’re not married, you will still experience a hiring bias and lowered pay just for being a woman who could, potentially, at some point, have children.

One study found that women applicants who had older children were more likely to be hired than childless applicants. Not only that — but employers tend to offer moms lower salaries because they believe they’re less competent and committed to their jobs because they might need to work from home more days or work a slightly abbreviated schedule to pick their kids up from daycare or after school. Shifting the burden of responsibility on all workers to just a 32 hour week would, no doubt, lessen the sheer number of responsibilities that working parents have to juggle in order to get by, and change the norms around what it means to be a dedicated employee.

Despite discriminatory hiring practices against moms, it’s well known that parents are very productive employees — likely because they have constraints on their time that childless workers do not. One thirty-year study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that moms of two are actually the most productive workers in the workplace and that people with children, in general, tend to outperform workers who do not have kids at all. 

Parents who are in the workplace have a strong motivation for doing well and getting their work done. Their jobs are tied to their health insurance, their ability to pay for school and child care, their ability to feed their kids, and overall survival. That they have a strict time every day to pick up their kids and spend time with them only increases their productivity in the workplace and makes them the perfect candidates for a shortened workweek, where they can leverage both their productivity and the fact that they need to spend time with their kids, as well. 

That being said, a government-endorsed 32-hour workweek doesn’t seem to be at the top of any policy priority list. It makes sense. The economy is bottoming out; some economists think we could reach an unemployment rate of 30 percent by the time this is all over. Enacting a wide-scale 32-hour workweek might actually limit purchasing power in a time when the economy needs it most. But flexibility, and understanding, needs to be at the top of the mind of individual managers who are managing working parents. That’s true in a normal year, but especially true when parents are parenting while working at the same time.

The economic model of employment still exists on the assumption that one parent can work full time and the other can afford to take home and take care of not just the babies and kids, but also household tasks like laundry, cleaning, balancing the checkbook, and more. That’s just not true anymore: in many American middle-class families, both parents are working, as is evidenced by the fact that 75 percent of moms are in the workforce. Because purchasing power has gone way down and wages haven’t risen to the costs of living or inflation, the old model of one parent working while the other did all the managerial work of the household just doesn’t exist anymore, except for the very privileged. Implementing to a 32-hour workweek could at least be a way to adapt to the new reality of modern life, where parents work from home, raise their children, and attempt to keep a regular schedule among all the chaos. 

There’s also the fact that, even if a 32-hour workweek were adopted with the caveat that parents would get paid less for their work, they would still be able to save on child care, after school care, and babysitters. (It’s worth noting that the UK Labour Party’s plan insists that while working hours will be reduced, employee’s pay will remain the same.) Today, the average parent spends about a third of their income on child care alone. Jennifer Glass, a professor of sociology and expert in work and family issues at the University of Texas Austin, reports that for some families, who spend about 30 percent of their income on child care, and then more on insurance, transportation costs, after school programs, and more, take-home pay is the equivalency of $2-$3 an hour. 

This dance often leads parents to decide whether one of them should leave the workforce altogether, which makes sense if their real-time earnings are measly. But what they’re doing is foregoing any kind of wages in the future: the motherhood penalty is worse for moms who spend more than their parental leave out of the workforce and policies should, in theory, support the parents who do want to work after having kids. A shorter workweek could be one of those policies. Plus, shaving off one or two hours every day would actually represent an enormous benefit to parents, especially right now. Studies show that parent-child bonding is better when parents can, well, spend more time with their kids, doing the things they want to do: play, bond, clean, cook, and relax together as a family.