It’s often hard to shake off the myth that the Nordic countries are a paradise of social democracy. New policy reforms are often misrepresented, overblown, and made into symbols of “Nordic exceptionalism” in international media. A chief example can be seen in Finland’s experiment with universal basic income (UBI) — a trial run far smaller in scale and less ambitious than is widely portrayed in English-speaking headlines.
Today, after being rocked as much as the rest of the world by COVID-19, Finland is once again attracting attention for what some decry as a utopian proposal: a radical shortening of working hours. But this time, the proposal is neither exceptional nor out of reach.
The country’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, (from the Social Democratic Party, SDP) has long been a proponent of a national six-hour workday. On August 24, after she had been officially elected as the SDP’s chair, she took the opportunity to announce to party members that the country needs “a clear vision and concrete steps as to how Finland can proceed towards shorter working hours and Finnish employees towards better working life.”
The party conference rejected Marin’s proposal to set a six hour-standard as a precise number. But the prime minister has set up a working group to come up with specific measures to reducing working hours nationally without reducing wages over the next three years — in cooperation with trade unions and other workers’ associations.
In order for this plan to succeed, Marin also needs to convince the other four parties in the Finnish government coalition. This may not be as difficult a task as it seems, thanks to the strong presence of the Left Alliance party (Vasemmistoliitto). In contrast with many other European countries, including their Nordic neighbors, the Finnish Social Democrats do not hesitate to work closely with their more radical counterparts, who now occupy several ministerial portfolios. Among them is the Minister for Social Affairs and Health, Aino-Kaisa Pekonen, who recently welcomed Marin’s proposals — calling for national trials of a six-hour workday as well as a four-day working week.
A Historic Demand
Why is Finland able to rally around a proposal that still seems so far out of reach in most other places? The immediate catalyst for Marin’s move is the seismic shift in global working patterns as a result of COVID-19. When workers are stuck in Zoom meetings or caught risking their lives in hospitals or grocery stores, it becomes harder to swallow the sanctified neoliberal idea of long working days as a worthwhile end in themselves.
In this sense, part of the answer is that Finland is not really such an exception. In fact, cutting the workday has long been rallying point for the Left, in the Nordic region but also worldwide. From its first decades, the labor movement called for cutting the ten-hour, twelve-hour, or sixteen-hour workday down to “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will.” If this might have been considered a pipe dream in the era of the Industrial Revolution, workers in the Nordic countries and elsewhere did win this victory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (inspiring May Day in the process).
As economies transformed and technology advanced over the next few decades, further reductions in working hours seemed not only reasonable but necessary. In the 1970s, Nordic feminist organizations allied with trade unions and other workers’ movements to raise the point that women’s workdays rarely stop at eight hours, when they are also charged with the “second shift” of care work. At present, while Nordic women have some of the highest workforce participation levels in the world, they disproportionately undertake part-time work — often a necessity, when they also have to fulfill caring duties.
Reducing working hours on a collective basis thus becomes a natural immediate political aim for the longer-term vision of equal access to participation in society — and the pursuit of individual happiness.
Finnish sociologist Paavo Seppänen formulated these claims as early as 1967. He outlined a “6+6” model of work sharing — still today invoked as a reference point — in which the working day would be broken down into two alternating six-hour shifts. Grassroots groups, trade unions, and government commissions alike studied and built upon the “6+6” model, developing concrete proposals to reimagine the use of time in a rapidly changing society. With the rise of neoliberalism, these proposals — along with the movement for reduced working hours — met with heavy ideological resistance and lost political momentum. Yet the demand for a six-hour workday has lingered in party programs and trade union platforms.
Between 1996 and 1999, Finland implemented a trial thirty-hour working week based on Seppänen’s model. The results of the trial showed increases not only in the reported well-being of workers, but also in overall productivity and efficiency. Similar outcomes were observed in the smaller-scale but high-profile Swedish trials of six-hour workdays in retirement homes — not least when it came to health outcomes, both for workers and for residents.
If these experiments have shown such promise, what’s standing in the way of reduced working hours as a nationwide policy goal? One key reason is resistance from employers, who have an interest in paying (as little as possible) for hours worked, not according to productivity. A six-hour day for eight hours’ pay means a higher hourly wage. It also means a loss of control over workers — not only in terms of a smaller chunk of each day where employers control the activities of employees, but also through the implicit acknowledgment that workers should have more of a say in organizing working life. But such a proposal also clashes with the ideological influence of a neoliberal value system in which work is presented as the ultimate source of self-worth and the price to pay to have a stake in society. Sure enough, Marin’s recent initiative was immediately met with resistance from right-wing parties and business interest groups. These forces are also present within the SDP — explaining its reluctance to commit to a blanket six-hour policy right away.
There is also a simpler roadblock standing in the way of the six-hour workday: the immediate costs. Since the 1990s, many more trials of the shorter workday have been run in individual companies in Finland, but with more mixed results than those carried out with government backing. They are typically abandoned when the individual employers find the costs are running too high. Similarly, the experiment at the Swedish retirement home was ultimately abandoned due to mounting costs covered solely by the local municipality.
Without large-scale financial backing, there is little incentive for smaller organizations or local governments to run trials or fully implement reduced working hours. This leads to a Catch-22 situation where localized experiments falter due a lack of financial support or political will, which in turn remains lackluster due to the limited evidence of successful initiatives. As with the transition to the eight-hour workday, a universal six-hour day is unlikely to become a reality without setting it as a nationwide legal maximum. Otherwise, few companies will be willing to forgo the competitive advantage of longer working hours.
Unexpectedly, COVID-19 may prove to be the oil that gets these rusty gears moving again. A looming economic crisis combined with the complete overhaul of working habits — along with a general reprioritization of health concerns — has revitalized the discussion on reduced working hours in Finland. With Marin’s initiative, there is a clear signal that galvanizing political will around a six-hour day is possible not only in the far-off future, but here and now.
But if such initiatives are impressive, it does us no good to see the Nordic region as a magic kingdom of social democracy blessed with unique circumstances that make such reforms possible there. The social and political factors driving favorable or exploitative outcomes for workers in this region are broadly the same as in the rest of the world — particularly in the age of coronavirus. To find inspiration to reimagine a more emancipatory future of work, it’s worth keeping an eye on Finland.