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Parents: Want More Work Life Balance? Get Behind A Four Day Work Week

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

On Monday, September 23, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party leader John McDonnell announced that the party would officially back a four-day (or 32 hour) work week 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.”

The four-day work week has long been a fringe policy or idea for labor organizers and economists. But McDonnell is 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 work week 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. Both of managerial and professional workers — who are 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 and who experience “schedule creep,” which is when part-time workers or full-time workers have their hours increased significantly without any compensation in pay, face these hours. 

Such a demand understandably puts cash-strapped parents in a bind as they struggle to find non-traditional child care arrangements — arrangements that in some states cost more than tuition at a four-year public college. Meanwhile, wage growth, while there have been some gains in recent months, has largely been stuck in neutral. To the extent that wages have been growing, it’s been from the bottom with minimum wage gains, not the top or middle.

While American workers continue to work longer hours with not much more money to show for it, some companies have taken note. 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 nurses, 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 less days. One CEO shifted her employees to four, 10 hour workdays, and says that their production rate has gone up 25 percent and that her company has boosted recruitment, making it easier to hire and retain employees. 

That’s a good thing, says Matthew Bidwell, an associate professor of management at Wharton and researcher and expert on the labor market. “At the moment, companies are much more worried about retention than they are laying people off.” 

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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.

“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. That drives huge differences in pay and promotions for men vs. 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,” says Bidwell. 

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. 75 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 day care 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. 

The 32-hour workweek isn’t just good because daycare ends before the workday does. It’s also good because of the way the economy is set up today. 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.  Shifting to a 32 hour workweek could at least be a way to adapt to the new reality of modern life, where the costs of raising kids are shared more equitably among mom and dad and, for single parents, choosing between kids and work is less of a fraught choice.

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. 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.