Blake God Blessing Seventh Day four-day week
Market and Economics

Four-day week: mandatory indolence or an interfaith ‘sacred weekend’?

When Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell mooted imposing a four-day week on the British economy (that is, a four-day working week; Labour has no plans to re-calibrate or ‘modernise’ the solar year [yet]), the idea met with some approval in trades union circles, and would doubtless be a massive vote-winner of superficial attraction for many thousands of Tories and LibDems who otherwise wouldn’t dream of contemplating a Jeremy Corbyn premiership. Who could possibly object to long weekends without end? Just imagine all that extra Monster-Truck-driving and Odds-Farm-Park-visiting and boundless lamb-feeding. And all that extra time for shopping – so much more to consume and so much more time to consume it in. And just think of those perpetual long weekends suffixed by a series of bank-holiday Mondays (which Corbyn also wants to increase to embrace St George’s Day and other patron saints’ days). This would surely be a work-life balance to dream of: ‘Four days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the fifth, sixth and seventh days are the sabbath…’

Theologian John Milbank has taken this sabbath theme, and is now selling the McDonnell-Corbyn endless leisure dream to syncretise Christians, Jews and Muslims for Labour: ‘Four days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the fifth, sixth and seventh days are the interfaith sabbath to thy gods…’

“Why not? It could be so unifying”, he tweeted, before being caught up to the third heaven:

After all every Friday is a reminder of Good Friday and a day of observance for Christians and the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening. So four days of real respected meaningful creative work. Three of real sacred leisure to contemplate, relate and relax. Very ecological.

This got one ‘like’, so he continued his rapture:

In Eastern Orthodoxy the sabbath is still Saturday. Also for some Muslims eg in Indonesia’s, this is the day of rest and not Friday. For all Muslims Friday is the day of the creation of Adam, the crowning if God’s work. Jews and Christians can readily embrace that also.

And for all three monotheistic faiths there is an idea of an eighth day of resurrection and eschatological restoration. So the possibility of a commonly accepted ‘sacred long weekend’ and not a commercial one theoretically exists. I submit this could be transformative for all.

And then came the creedal declaration:

This is my interfaith, good for secular people also, anti capitalist and ecological proposal. A four day week for all plus a different kind of sacred, non-commercial long weekend comprising Friday, Saturday, Sunday which are in overlapping different ways holy for all monotheists.

This got five likes (which might grow after this boost). Nobody really reads John Milbank’s stuff – except maybe Phillip Blond. If students weren’t put off Milbankian theological turgidity in the university faculty, they soon give up trying to fathom his philosophy of infinite space bounded in a nutshell tweet. Life’s too short.

But is he on to something with this?

There are manifest arguments against a state-imposed four-day week, not least the increase in employment costs (since those trades union leaders wouldn’t contemplate salaries being cut by 20 per cent: no, a four-day week must remunerate at the same level as a five-day week or the foodbanks will go into overdrive); and the arguments against liberty (for if a man wants to work for five days, why shouldn’t he? What if it’s not physically possible to meet all deadlines within the constraints of a four-day week?); and the arguments against indolence (honestly, is three days of ‘rest’ going to push the boredom threshold for millions, and just offer another tedious day of sitting in front of the telly eating pizza?).

But there are also arguments in favour of the four-day week, and (liberty-constraining and indolence-inducing aside) they aren’t so readily dismissed. Herman Bernade observes:

The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Ireland and Denmark all currently have a model in place to ensure that employees have a strong work life balance. The Netherlands have a 4 day working week. The statistics are hard to argue with, there are studies proving that productivity and profits increase when this method is used. There is a case study completed in 2015 in Sweden, where they have implemented a 6-hour working day, where Toyota experienced an increase in profits and a much lower turnover rate.

More relevant to the Australian market, I read an article about an organisation in Tasmania that has moved to a 5-hour working day. In the article, the owner of the business mentioned the risk he took owning a small to medium business, questioning whether the work would be completed. As a result, he had 90% less sick days and with almost no staff turnover. This seems fluffy, but when you take in consideration that the Australian economy loses $33 billion a year in the loss of productivity and payroll costs due to sick days, it makes you think. And if you look at the staff turnover, recruiting replacements, whether it’s outsourced or not, is expensive, particularly in terms of labour hours lost. So if you can make changes that will improve your staff turnover, you will save yourself a lot of time and money.

Might a four-day week in the UK actually boost productivity and cost employers less? Might it alleviate stress, improve people’s mental health and save the NHS £millions in antidepressants and hypertension medication? Would it strengthen the family and benefit society as a whole, making people happier, more generous with their time and more community orientated? John Milbank talks in terms of the created order and ecology, noting the link between Pope Jean Paul II “on creatio continua and human co-creativity, and Pope Francis with his integral ecology and stress on human stewardship”. Is there arguably something profoundly Christian about a four-day week?

Work is a gift of creation, and so is the sabbath rest. Might a four-day labour be better fulfilled by a three-day sabbath, rather like a 16-hour day of wakeness finds completeness in an eight-hour sleep? Milbank alludes to eschatological restoration: God’s work of creation was finished on the sixth day; all that remains is for us to enter the sabbath rest which has been waiting for us since the beginning of the world: ‘For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his‘ (Heb 4:10). Would a three-day ‘sacred weekend’ give us more time to catch up with God, as William Blake’s ‘God Blessing the Seventh Day’ (featured above) exhales with elation? Could God sit centrally on the sixth and fifth days, also? Might His hand extend in blessing while the angels behind Him surround their Creator and breathe life into His creation? Given an extra day, would we find more time to love God and our neighbour? Would we be more united, as Milbank avers, and become more inclusive in our community sacredness?

Or would a mandatory four-day week usurp the authority of Christ and his aversion to pharisaical law? ‘And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath‘ (Mk 2:27f). How can you have a mandatory three-day sabbath when food needs buying, children need teaching, adults need entertaining and enemies need killing? What would a three-day sabbath mean for those who perform sacred tasks? Would they become more merciful and sacrificial, or more obsessed with the weight of the sabbath law?

Enraptured by his vision of interfaith harmony and eschatological consummation, rather than exhorting an anti-capitalist and ecological utopia, John Milbank is in danger of making the same moral mistake that Margaret Thatcher made with her focus on monetarism and wealth creation. She believed that the richer people became, the more generous they would be with their wealth, and the more they would care for their neighbour and so mitigate the welfare demands on the state (ie the taxpayer). She ignored the sinful state of the human heart (Jer 17:9), believing optimistically that love would overcome selfishness and greed, and she got this so very wrong. Might a four-day week be an ill-founded conception because a three-day sabbath would never become the “sacred, non-commercial long weekend” Professor Milbank imagines, but the human heart would eschew all cultural-religious moral codes and ecological ordering-principles, inclined, as it is, toward ‘evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander‘ (Mt 15:19). Doesn’t that sound like a much more fun way of spending a weekly three-day holiday than meditating on matters of divine ecology? Doesn’t the Devil still make work for idle hands?