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(Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail/Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail)
(Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail/Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail)

The three-day weekend: a dream deferred Add to ...

Their fears were unfounded. Industrial society's ability to function with reduced work capacity was clearly demonstrated during the Second World War, when millions of men went off to the front. Had the same methodologies been preserved after 1945, argued philosopher Bertrand Russell, and "the workweek cut to four days, all would have been well. Instead, the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed." For Dr. Russell, "the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery."

The post-war decades yielded a harvest of new labour-saving devices. By 1970, American writer Alvin ( Future Shock) Toffler envisaged an irreversible exodus from the workplace, precipitating a boom in leisure-time activities. These roseate forecasts achieved consensus as the computer era dawned and gathered pace, spurred by the development of the integrated circuit in 1958.

"From the ashes of the work ethic will rise the phoenix of leisure," trumpeted electronic engineers Alan Burkitt and Elaine Williams, in 1980. "People will have the opportunity of using more free time to pursue their leisure interests, and more money to spend on them." And computer scientist Christopher Evans maintained that the microprocessor would "at long last make the humanistic dream of universal affluence and freedom from drudgery a reality."

The cult of hard labour

So what went wrong? Ben Hunnicutt thinks he knows. "The problem is that work has taken the place of religion in our lives," says the American sociologist, who teaches at the University of Iowa.

"All the mythologies associated with work are the same ones associated with God. Except work is a false God. The notion that we can grow our economies forever, reach full employment - it's easier to believe in the resurrection of the body. "

The research of Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild verifies Prof. Hunnicutt's theory. For her 1997 book, The Time Bind, When Work becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, Prof. Hochschild interviewed employees for an American corporation that had put enlightened, family-friendly policies for work-sharing, flex-time, parental leave and sabbaticals in place. Yet the usage rate proved shockingly low - not because management subtly discouraged their adoption, or because employees were unaware of the programs, or because they could not afford them. Higher-paid workers were even less likely to use flex-time than lower-paid workers.

"What I realized," says Prof. Hochschild, "is that the village well has gone to work. If you asked these people where they felt good about themselves, where they felt supported, where they felt safe - it was always work. One man said, 'I've worked for the company 30 years. I get pink slips at home.'"

And for all its mega-pixelated marvels, technology itself now degrades the quality of our leisure. As French philosopher Jacques Ellul noted, our leisure time, "instead of ... representing a break with society, is literally stuffed with technical mechanisms of compensation and integration. ... Leisure time is mechanized time and is exploited by techniques which, although different from those of man's ordinary work, are as invasive, exacting, and leave man no more free time than labour itself."

It's time for a change - time to move, incrementally, toward a four-day workweek.

Utah implemented exactly that plan - four, 10-hour days, with no cuts to pay or benefit, for its non-essential public employees - in 2008. Half a dozen other U.S. jurisdictions are said to be studying it. The European community has gone much further. In Scandinavia, working parents have the right to insist on a four-day week, without salary cuts. In the Netherlands, that right applies to all employees.

The 72-hour gospel

So, how rich are the potential dividends of a four-day week? Let us count the ways.

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