A Four-Day Workweek Isn’t Just a Dream For a Surprising Number of U.S. Employees

New research shows the share of full-time U.S. employees working four days a week tripled from 1973 to 2018.

A growing trend. Photo By Jorge Gil/Europa Press via Getty Images

The four-day workweek has become one of the hottest management trends in the years since the Covid pandemic upended many traditional working schedules.

Countries including Belgium, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates all announced plans to try out a four-day workweek following a positive trial in Iceland that showed workers were happier and more productive. Meanwhile, on June 6, the U.K. launched the biggest pilot yet, encompassing more than 3,000 workers across 70 companies. For six months, these employees will work 80% of their typical week in exchange for maintaining the same level of productivity.

But new research indicates four-day workweeks were on the rise in the U.S. well before the pandemic. Using data from Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, researchers found the share of full-time U.S. employees working four days a week tripled between 1973 and 2018, representing an additional 8 million workers. The authors of the study tracked a similar upward trend in the Netherlands, Germany, and South Korea.

It was surprising to see that the share of Americans working four days a week grew by this much over the past half-century, representing 6 percent of the U.S. population by 2018, said Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Texas at Austin who co-authored the paper. The study’s findings show that a four-day workweek “is no longer totally rare,” and that the practice has been growing across most industries. The study was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research as a working paper, which means it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed.

Four-day workweeks are most common among young, less educated workers

Historically the most common adopters of a four-day workweek were police and fire-fighters, health-care workers, and service industry employees working at eating or drinking establishments, according to paper. They’ve also tended to be younger, male, and less educated. This pattern isn’t totally surprising, as workers in these sectors tend to have longer shifts and more unpredictable hours.

But the researchers tracked an uptick in employees working four days a week across other industries as well, particularly over the past 20 years. This was true for government, education, and the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors, for example. “Clearly it’s becoming easier for companies to do this,” Hamermesh said.

Aside from the fact that offering a four-day workweek appears to be getting easier, the research also suggests that employees “want it more and more than they used to as well,” he added. This is consistent with other surveys tracking attitudes toward four-day workweeks: A February study by the analytics firm Qualtrics, for example, found that most U.S. employees would prefer a four-day workweek even if it meant working longer hours.

Though the study provides evidence that the U.S. workforce is moving toward more widespread adoption of a four-day workweek, Hamermesh said the practice is likely to look different across industries as more companies implement the policy. Millions of workers tracked by the NBER paper worked 40 or more hours a week over four days, but new pilot programs are challenging the idea that the same amount of work should be crammed into a shorter workweek. The 4 Day Week Global program, which is one of the non-profits running the U.K. trial, suggests that firms reduce their workweek to 32 hours without docking employees’ pay with the expectation that their productivity won’t suffer. Historically U.S. workers faced a wage penalty for switching to a four-day workweek, though that penalty has decreased over time, the NBER paper found.

A Four-Day Workweek Isn’t Just a Dream For a Surprising Number of U.S. Employees