Is the four-hour week something rich millennials made up?

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Quit your tedious nine to five job and carve out a living where you can spend the majority of your days drinking mojitos on a sundrenched beach. Or, failing that, skateboarding to a co-working space to sip cold brew coffee with other people who inexplicably wear tiny beanie hats indoors all year round. That’s the dream, right? 

As technology has created opportunities for people to work remotely, launch start-ups, and join the gig economy, this flexible lifestyle is within reach for many more of us. 

There are plenty of templates for success. Take Tim Ferris, the author of the Four Hour Work Week and an entrepreneur who quit his desk job to launch a nutritional supplements firm, which enabled him to manage his time more efficiently, travel the world and invest in then-startups Facebook, Uber and Twitter. Or Sarah Knight, whose books Get Your Sh*t Together and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck document how she too ditched corporate drudgery to go freelance and live in the Dominican Republic with a “sh*tload of lizards”. Some firms in Sweden recently tried six-hour days with varying levels of success. “How to quit my day job and travel the world” and “How to quit your day job and live out your dreams” aren’t among the most Googled phrases for nothing.

Research suggests that working fewer and more flexible hours is better for employers and employees alike. It can make a person more productive, reduce their risk of conditions such as stroke and heart disease, and help gender equality as both mothers and fathers can take time out to care for children. By ditching the commute, we free up hours in the day for relaxation, volunteering, caring for our families, and raise the chances of networking with a wider variety of people. 

Research commissioned by Barclaycard into the ‘Slashie’ generation of 18 to 34-year-olds who are monetising their hobbies to find a better work/life balance found that a quarter are generating their income from their outside-of-work interests. And 40 per cent of those aged under 35 expect their jobs to provide a sense of fulfilment, leading them to move jobs much more frequently than those over 35. However, preparing for the self-employed dream took an 20 additional hours each week outside of the day job for 5 per cent of the 2,000 UK adults surveyed. 

Chloe Donegan is a 28-year-old designer, developer and teacher based in London who runs the Bread Und Butter digital design company. She quit her job in finance in 2011, and taught herself how to code on the bus to and from work. 

“I saw that tech was really starting to change industries across the board. I wanted to be involved and understand what was possible,” she tells The Independent.

“The variety of projects I get to work on and the people I’ve met” is the best part of her job, she says, but the toughest is the hustle. “Whilst working on a project you always need to carve out time to secure future work.” 

And a common theme among people who do what we’ve all dreamed of on a particularly gruelling humpday (creating the next Facebook, tipping all the papers off your desk, flipping it upside down, standing atop it like you’re in a movie and declaring that ‘I quit!’) is the that they were losing the will to live in high pressure, but high paying jobs in the city or that they had the financial backing of parents. You don’t read so many stories about people who work at a supermarket putting all their money behind a world-changing app, because it is harder for the average person to save and create their own safety net. Is this new flexible, working week just a lie that rich millennials made up? And is making this model seem viable and attractive just playing into the hands of exploitative employers who don’t need to bother with contracts, holiday, and sick pay?

On the face of it, yes. “Although unemployment has been falling since its peak in 2011, many of the people moving back into work have done so into self-employment or with casual or part-time contracts that provide irregular, and often insecure, incomes,” explains Alice Martin, Work and Housing Lead at the New Economics Foundation think-tank which first called for a 21-hour working week in 2010. 

In the UK, official statistics show that the number of self-employed people has risen from 3.8million in 2008 to 4.6million in 2015. And since 2010, the gig economy has grown by 72 per cent in London and 28 per cent across the UK. This compares with significantly lower growth in employment within other sectors of the economy.

“We’ve seen a reduction of the number of ‘good jobs’ – defined as secure, stable employment that pays at least enough to provide a decent standard of living,” she adds. “Our findings show that only 61 per cent of the labour force has a secure job that pays at least the living wage – this is below levels observed in 2011.” The gig economy is partly to blame for the reduction of job security, she says.

“It is harder for those with no financial backing nor security in other aspects of their life, for example in terms of their housing, to take the leap from employment into self-employment. They are forgoing their rights to sick and holiday pay and will become responsible for ensuring a smooth enough income to cover their monthly outgoings,” adds Martin, pointing to New Economics research showing that self-employed people on low incomes regularly have to pay invoices and household builds with credit cards, while public advice services have seen a significant increase in the proportion of in-work clients who are self-employed seeking debt and housing advice.

“The stress of trying to maintain independence might mean stalling decisions about how to solve a financial problem, or making choices that lead to further problems — such as falling prey to financial scams.”

However, that doesn’t mean the new, flexible way of working can’t be an option for the average person. IndyCube, for instance, is a co-operative working space that opened in Wales in 2010 for people who are self-employed and freelance in places where industry has declined. They recently opened their first space in London’s Walthamstow, where 15 per cent of residents are self-employed but 46 per cent earn less than the living wage. The firm’s practises what it preaches, as employees work four days, 32 hour weeks and are encouraged to use the extra time for anything from writing to business ventures or just sitting around in the pyjamas if they see fit. Seeing that self-employed people are at greater risk, they recently launched indycube.community membership which gives staff benefits. Similarly, the Bread Fund is a crowdfunded sick pay model between 25 to 50 self-employed people. 

“We are placing coworking sites in places that you would not perhaps expect, in the communities where people live and not just in city centre hubs,” comments Ceri Davies of IndyCube. 

“One member who has a desk in Swansea works for Youngs – he is often ‘on the road’ and must travel for work, but has chosen to stay in Swansea and work independently from indycube rather than to live and work in Youngs’ HQ in Grimsby. We also boast a member who works out of our Cardiff Trade Street office for a Vienna based company. The need to be in a room with colleagues every day is no longer relevant.”

“We have wondered whether perhaps the need to keep workers in one space is a trust issue with employers?” he adds. 

Faith that the job will get done, whether a person is self-employed or working remotely, is a vital part of making flexible working a reality for more people, says Alex Soojung Pang, the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. He has studied how startups and small companies including highly competitive fields including software firms and advertising companies can adopt four-day weeks and six-hour days and reaped the rewards. 

They also need a leader that trusts their workforce to do more work in less time; have employees who will put the work in; and  articulate clear processes, rather than require workers to work long hours to make up for bad planning, he explains. 

“Mobile technologies and work haven’t allowed up to break work into discrete chunks that we can complete at our convenience; they’ve ground work into a fine powder that’s spread across our day,” says Pang. With a balance between security and autonomy for workers and employers, that doesn’t have to be the case. 

But he cautions ‘creatives’ who have the romantic idea that they should be immersed in a creative live and passionate about what they do all of the time.

“The reality is that most well-known writers, painters, and musicians continue to have other jobs: Anthony Trollope worked in the post office; Toni Morrison was an editor, and then a professor. Nobody does creative work 24/7.”

“I think greater rights for freelancers, and better social support for workers who are between jobs or trying to start their own companies, would be great,” he goes on. “At the same time, too many companies think of employees as expenses or adversaries, rather than a source of value and new ideas. It’s that kind of attitude that makes the gig economy attractive, and the idea of replacing all workers with robots look like paradise.”