Sweden’s 6-Hour Work Day
Photo: Elle Neill
Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them…
– John Stuart Mill
This is a rewritten version of a 2015 post.
Sweden envy. People trying to run other countries must surely sometimes feel like a younger sibling constantly being asked why can’t they be like the older one, who is richer, better looking, and can ski and sail, as well. While Sweden’s 2020 Covid-19 response is a gaping exception to this tradition, back in 2015 they made a decision that belonged securely in the enviable category for fostering a flourishing society.
This experiment was truly profound, as it pushed the boundaries of the basic belief that there is a tradeoff between time and money. That is, a shorter work day challenges the assumption that working more hours increases economic output.
So, at an individual level, one appears to have a choice: you can have more leisure, or you can have more money by working more hours. But you can’t have both (for a given level of productivity).
Sweden challenged that orthodoxy by testing a 6-hour work day, starting in 2015:
A Swedish retirement home may seem an unlikely setting for an experiment about the future of work, but a small group of elderly-care nurses in Sweden havemade radical changes to their daily lives in an effort to improve quality and efficiency.
In February the nurses switched from an eight-hour to a six-hour working day for the same wage – the first controlled trial of shorter hours since a rightward political shift in Sweden a decade ago snuffed out earlier efforts to explore alternatives to the traditional working week.1)David Crouch, in The Guardian, September 17, 2015: Efficiency Up, Turnover Down: Sweden Experiments with 6-Hour Working Day. Accessed July 12, 2020.
And what are the results? It works. It works so well that today, in 2020, Finland is moving toward a four-hour work day!2)See Andre Spicer, “Will Finland introduce a four-day week? Is it the secret of happiness?”, in The Guradian, January 6, 2020: Finland Four-Hour Work Day Accessed July 12, 2020.
Why it works seems fairly obvious: when you work fewer hours, the hours you work are more effective. And because you have spent less time working, your leisure hours are also more effective.
And there are other proven benefits – less illness, less time off for stress, and, as pointed out in the 2015 article, shorter commutes because people are starting and finishing at different times of day, and there is less “rush hour” traffic.
So: fewer hours, better results. This is a big increase in productivity (and flourishing) with no capital investment, no technology change, and no ‘major change’ program – just some courage to challenge the Orthodoxy in one small corner of the economy.
We think this bold experiment illustrates 2 general points that are critical to think about if we are going to design economic and social policies that foster flourishing.
First, every society must choose rules to reduce competition, and getting the rules right to reduce competition is an empirical question.
For those who doubt that restricting competition is a legitimate role of the state, reflect on the fact that in every society it is illegal to murder your boss to take her job – that is, physical violence is not an acceptable dimension of competition. Our post – Optimized Competition – explores this idea in greater depth (and our book in even greater depth!), but it’s not an exaggeration to say that getting the right rules to reduce competition is the most critical task of government. The right rules lead to a strong economy, healthy competition, and a level of flourishing. The wrong rules – such as inappropriate subsidies, or barriers to competition – lead to crony capitalism and high levels of corruption.
Second, quality leisure is a critical component of flourishing.
Presumably, as society gets more efficient at producing goods and services (and as robots take your jobs), people will have more leisure time. How rich societies approach this leisure time will help to define their level of flourishing. And this operates at both the societal and individual levels. At the societal level, there’s no point in improving efficiency if it results in an increasingly skewed income distribution and the ‘leisure’ attained is essentially forced idleness through unemployment. So, since technology allows us to produce increasingly more with less work, economic policies need to make sure that that prosperity is widely shared.
Otherwise, what is the point of this economic progress?
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||David Crouch, in The Guardian, September 17, 2015: Efficiency Up, Turnover Down: Sweden Experiments with 6-Hour Working Day. Accessed July 12, 2020.|
|2.||↑||See Andre Spicer, “Will Finland introduce a four-day week? Is it the secret of happiness?”, in The Guradian, January 6, 2020: Finland Four-Hour Work Day Accessed July 12, 2020.|