In February 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning, the workforce participation rate (the percentage of working-age people who were employed or seeking jobs) in the U.S. was 63.3 percent. Currently, that rate is at 61.6 percent, which represents a falloff of 4.3 million workers.

It would be one thing if this decline were due to businesses that shut down and didn’t reopen, but that’s not the case. Almost all of the jobs that disappeared early in the pandemic have come back, but millions of workers have not.

Furthermore, those who did return (or who never left) now are quitting jobs in manufacturing, retail and even professional and business services at near-record rates, even as consumer demand for goods and services soars after nearly two years of pandemic-induced restraint.

The result? U.S. employers are struggling to hang on to their current workers while also trying to fill more than 10 million open positions.

The most obvious solution — higher pay — hasn’t worked. Wages in October were up nearly 10 percent compared to one year ago, and the months of July through September showed the highest national rate of wage and salary growth in more than two decades, yet millions of potential workers remain on the sidelines. It seems the pandemic forced them (or allowed them) to take a long, hard look at their work-life balance, and for many, work became less of a priority.

So, if more money won’t bring people back to the workforce, what will? One possible answer is an idea that has been discussed for decades: a four-day work week.

The attractions are obvious. Three-day weekends become the norm. No more having to take time off work to go to the dentist or take the dog to the vet. More time with family, less time commuting. Fewer meetings.

American workers clearly like the idea. A recent survey of 1,010 randomly chosen employees from across the nation found 83 percent support a shorter workweek to combat widespread burnout and fatigue.

Kickstarter, Shake Shack and Unilever are among the companies experimenting with a four-day workweek. U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has introduced a bill in Congress to reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours, and more than a dozen companies in the U.S. and Canada are slated to join in a six-month pilot program called 4 Day Week Global next year.

There’s plenty of evidence — much of it gleaned from companies in Europe — that these experiments will succeed. A four-day work week typically results in no loss of productivity and an increase in employees’ well-being, creativity, contentment and retention.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Pay cuts would scuttle the whole idea, so if a four-day week became standard in the U.S., would workers’ pay remain the same for 32 hours of work, or would they work four 10-hour days? Would manufacturers operate for just four days per week, or would they need to add employees and stagger their workdays?

More importantly, how would/could a four-day week be implemented in service industries such as hotels, restaurants or entertainment venues? What about public safety professionals or medical workers? Police officers and paramedics can’t exactly compress their workweek into fewer hours.

Clearly, a four-day work week won’t work for every employer in the public and private sectors — and we won’t touch the idea of a four-day school week, which would warrant an entire editorial of its own.

Those issues aside, we see the debate about a four-day workweek as a good starting point for a much broader and long-overdue discussion of workplace flexibility. Potential and current employees have tremendous leverage right now, and while wages are important, so too are their kids’ after-school sporting events, their aging parents’ medical appointments and the option of working from home when a blizzard hits. Some workers might want to take a half-day off on Wednesday and make it up on Saturday. Others will prefer to work 60 hours one week and 20 the next — or three 12-hour days every week.

While such flexibility might sound somewhat utopian, or at least unrealistic, the reality is that COVID appears to have caused a major shift in how millions of Americans value their time and how they define themselves. Jobs and careers are still important — we all have bills to pay, after all — but people today are less willing to shape their lives around an employer’s needs.

Employers need to accept that fact, and they must recognize that they are in competition with each other. Whoever offers the greatest flexibility will have the least difficulty finding and retaining employees who truly want to work and will take pride in a job well done.

— Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.

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