Is time the new luxury of the working rich?

If there’s a single thing on which everyone can agree these days, it’s the notion that life post-COVID isn’t just going back to normal. This is particularly true in the job market. After being overworked at home for much of the pandemic, many Canadian workers are seeking ways to reclaim their time and their lives. Once again, the idea of a 4-day workweek is being bandied about.

The notion of a legislated shorter workweek isn’t new — it’s been around for decades and tried in various forms around the world. Research shows that workers are happier (well, why wouldn’t they be?), more productive and healthier. Plenty of employers around the world are also fans.

While there’s little doubt that a shorter workweek for the same pay would benefit workers, one has to ask: which workers? Would the benefits be spread evenly among the workforce? Or might there be unintended consequences that would create even greater social inequality?

Being able to have more time that we call our own, without reducing the income that we need to survive, is obviously something that a lot of people want and could benefit from,” says Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers.(1) But on a recent podcast, she notes not all workers have the same control over their time.

The types of workers who would benefit most from a legislated 4-day work week are those who already have significant control over their time. These tend to be higher-paid knowledge workers, ones with paid sick time off, flex days, paid vacations and other time-related benefits. They may be able to pop away from their desk for an hour or two for a doctor’s appointment or to care for a child or aging parent. These are the ones that could work from home during the pandemic.

This isn’t to suggest these workers don’t work hard and long hours — in fact, many of them worked even longer hours over COVID and saw the lines blur between work and life. But they generally had greater control as to when and where they got their work done.

But an even larger group of Canadian workers in the 21st century do not fall into this category. They tend to be part-time workers in the “gig economy,” concentrated in industries such as food and accommodation, health care, retail services and personal care. They’re required to be on site, meaning they can’t just duck out during the day to run a few errands. Their income tends to be precarious. Often they are required to be “on call” — meaning that they’re tethered to their phones in case they are needed at work.

These workers often receive low pay, requiring them to cobble together two, three or even more jobs in order to pay rent and bills. They might spend more time on transportation getting from job to job, which are unpaid hours. The idea of a “weekend” to rest and recharge may be a completely foreign concept.

The highest-paid workers, who already enjoy greater control over their time, would benefit disproportionately from a 4-day work week, while the lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers may see no benefit at all.

Maybe time inequality is going to be the big story of the coming years,” says Yalnizyan.

She sees three ways in which part-time, precarious workers could start to see improved control over their time. The first is simply changing laws and regulations around things like sick pay, maternity leave and paid time off for training and education. However, many casual workers in the gig economy are technically self-employed, and therefore may not be covered under labour laws.

The second way is for employers — who compete for talent and skilled workers — to improve conditions and offer more favourable benefits around time off. The third way is for workers to organize for their own collective benefit to improve working conditions and benefits around time away.

There is no guarantee that any of these pathways to greater control over time will occur, yet Yalnizyan remains positive.

You’re starting to see all three things (starting to happen). We’re having court cases with Uber, as to whether people are employees or workers, and whether that means they get to access those rights or not. We’re seeing workplaces that are offering better wages and working conditions which include a better balance of time and time off for companies that really want to attract the best and brightest. And we are seeing an acceleration of workers trying to organize themselves and bargain collectively, to have better working conditions,” she says.

That’s good news. The widening disparity of income is bad enough, but a growing gap in how much free time one worker has over another — and how much control over their own time they have — could lead to greater social unrest and political instability.

“There’s going to be an interesting conversation about how we allocate this fleeting moment that we call life,” says Yalnizyan. Canadians would be wise to examine how we value time, since it’s a scarce and limited resource. Giving Canadian workers in all industries greater control over their personal time should be a guiding principle of the 4-day work week conversation.

Footnote: 1. Armine Yalnizyan, guest on The Globe and Mail’s podcast The Decibel, August 2, 2021

Todd Hirsch

The Modern Economist

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