Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins pour cold water on four-day week proposal to soften artificial intelligence job displacement

A new report from Otago University has suggested a four-day work week to soften artificial intelligence (AI) job displacement, but neither Jacinda Ardern nor Judith Collins are on board. 

The report, titled The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Jobs and Work in New Zealand, highlights the uncertainty over whether workers will be enabled by AI or displaced by it, and suggests shortening the work week as the "most promising" solution. 

"It is difficult to find approaches that would decrease inequality if high-value work becomes scarcer but would also secure meaningful increase in wellbeing should AI make Aotearoa wealthier," the report says. 

"Many apparently desirable strategies, like a Universal Basic Income, are probably unaffordable now and might become even less so depending on how AI implementation plays out. The most promising approach is shortening the work week.

"This is feasible because AI is inherently labour saving. Experiments here and overseas suggest that office workers can often maintain productivity despite dropping to a four-day week."

The Government would need to subsidise the shorter work week in some cases so that workers retained the same level of pay, the report suggests.  

"This would effectively subsidise the sharing of a wide variety of high-value, well-paid work. It would also address metrics which show that New Zealanders overwork when compared to other comparable developed countries.

"A four-day week or a workday synchronised to the school day would help to build vibrant and resilient communities in which it would be easier for all of us to look after our kaumātua, tamariki and mokopuna."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was open to hearing about the effectiveness of four-day work weeks from organisations that have tried it, but she said it's not something the Government is looking into. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

"This has been a debate that's been around for some time and whilst it is not on our policy agenda I know a lot of businesses have looked to trial this for their own purposes and for them, I'd be really interested to hear the outcomes. But again, it's not on our current agenda."

National leader Judith Collins acknowledged that many companies have embraced more flexible working arrangements, like four-day work weeks, in the wake of COVID-19. But she said businesses should do what's best for them. 

"We don't believe governments should tell businesses how to do their business and impose any one-size-fits-all requirements. Businesses and their employers know what will work best for them."

Collins also doesn't support the idea of a Universal Basic Income. 

"We don't support a Universal Basic Income. The only way to set a Universal Basic Income at a rate that is high enough for those who need it is by increasing taxes massively to pay for it. We support a more targeted approach to support those who need it." 

A 2018 World Economic Forum report predicted that half of all work tasks would be handed by machines by 2025, and that it would worsen inequality. McKinsey estimates between 400 million and 800 million could be displaced by automation by 2030.

New Zealand's poor productivity 

It comes as new data from the Productivity Commission shows New Zealand's productivity record is poor. Kiwis work 34.2 hours per week with $68 of output per hour compared to 31.9 hours per week with $85 output per hour in other OECD countries. 

Andrew Barnes, founder of service provider Perpetual Guardian, made headlines across the globe in 2018 for introducing a four-day week. He told The AM Show last year productivity and profits went up, and staff stress levels dropped.   

He's renewing calls for wider adoption of four-day work weeks in the wake of the Productivity Commission's latest findings. 

"If a consequence of embracing AI is a six-hour work day or a four-day week, we will inevitably be working smarter, not harder," he said on Thursday. 

"Part of this would depend on the Government encouraging and supporting innovation to a greater extent; people don't want to work low-value, low-paid jobs, so we need to make those low-productivity sectors more attractive and do them differently using AI and other technologies."

National leader Judith Collins.
National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Getty

Collins, who is National's spokesperson for technology, manufacturing and AI, said developments in artificial intelligence are a "big opportunity" for New Zealand, which should be embraced. 

She said more investment is needed in STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths. The Education Review Office recently found that 80 percent of Year 8 students are achieving below the desired level in science.  

"We need a greater focus at primary and secondary education, we should have government scholarships for children to study STEM subjects at university, and investment in specialised STEM post-graduate schools," Collins said. 

"While it's inevitable that technology like AI and robotics will replace aspects of some jobs, they will also help us become more productive so Kiwis are working smarter not harder, and could create new jobs that we've never thought of before." 

The Government put $44 million towards boosting digital training, advice and support for businesses in Budget 2021 to take advantage of opportunities in e-commerce and technology