Imagine if every weekend was a long weekend, and every week a four-day week.
In Sweden, a 30-hour week has been shown to benefit satisfaction and health, and lead to a more equal share of housework and childcare between genders. Yet another Swedish experiment found that a decrease in work time by 1 per cent corresponds to an 0.8 per cent reduction in household greenhouse gas emissions.
Australian academics have recently called for our current 38-hour cap to be strengthened in order to improve gender equality. Perhaps we should go further: a four-day work week – for both men and women.
In her book The Wife Drought, Fairfax Media columnist Annabel Crabb suggested we’ve been looking at workplace equality all wrong. It’s not just about getting women into work, keeping them there, and paying them well. It’s about getting men to go home.
Of couples with children, the prevailing family structure is loosely traditional: a man working full-time with a partner either working part-time or not at all. About half of all nuclear families look like this.
Things look different for mothers working full-time: less than 15 per cent have partners who work part-time or not at all. This may explain some of the difficulty women have reaching the top in particularly demanding professions.
Labor leader Bill Shorten was criticised for pointing out that “men in Australia rely on the women in Australia to do the childcare”. But it’s true: women do 64 per cent of the childcare in couple families. Factoring in single parent families, this figure would be much higher.
It’s a similar story with housework: in a week, an average Australian woman will clock up 42 hours if she is not employed, and 25 hours if she is employed full-time. For men, the figures are 20 and 16 hours respectively.
Crabb notes that despite women’s considerable shift into work, “the lack of a corresponding shift the other way by men means that combining work and family, for women, is harder than it should be”.
Men find it hard to step back from work, even if they want to: the Diversity Council observed in 2012 that 79 per cent of young fathers would like to try a compressed work week, but only a quarter did. It’s not just fathers. Last year the Australia Institute found that almost half of full-time workers feel overworked and want to work less.
Couples have a limited amount of time between them to earn, care, cook and clean. By capping the days men (and women) can spend at work, couples would be encouraged to shuffle around who does what: a woman might head to work for three days instead of two, while a man takes care of the kids on his extra day off.
The interplay of all these social, economic and environmental effects is complex. But there is certainly enough promise to warrant some thought while you put your feet up.
Madeline White is a freelance writer